Smart virtual assistants could revolutionise dementia care

29th June 2018
Alex Lynn

Developing new virtual assistant technologies, such as Amazon Echo, should involve dementia sufferers, their carers and the NHS so that these tools can help people to stay in their homes for longer, according to a new study from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

With the number of dementia sufferers in the UK set to double by 2040, these technologies are becoming increasingly important as the range of help they can offer expands and the need for support threatens to overwhelm purely human help.

However, there has been little research into the development and systematic deployment of these tools to support patients and their carers.

In a new report Engineering and Dementia: The Use of Intelligent Assistive Technologies, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers calls for a new regulatory framework to improve the robustness of research and the speed of clinical testing of Intelligent Assistive Technologies (IATs).

These IATs include voice control of communication devices such as phones, safety monitors which can remind patients to take medication and find people who have become lost by using exit sensors and GPS trackers.

“The introduction of these technologies to support dementia patients and their carers poses some significantly different and potentially unique challenges compared with other healthcare technologies,” said Graham Isaac, Institution member and Visiting Professor at the University of Leeds, who led the development of this report.

Dr Helen Meese, Trustee of the Institution and MedTech consultant, added: “The technologies need to be compatible with a wide range of symptoms and must be adaptable as the condition will inevitably progress over time.”

The report builds on the Healthy Homes study, released by the Institution earlier this year, into how the use of technology and innovation in smart homes will be the key to enabling people to be more active and stay in their homes for longer.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers believes a Dementia Technology Advisory Board should be set up by 2019 to define and oversee the specification, development and introduction of ethically sound and effective technology, with the key focuses of:

  • Promoting investment in healthcare infrastructure systems to ensure compatibility with IATs, ensuring both social benefits and cost savings.
  • Ensuring designers and engineers involve all stakeholders in the development of appropriate devices including patients, carers, hospitals and care homes.
  • Investigating and clarifying the ethical dimensions of these devices and ensure these issues are addressed in the early stage of product development.

The Advisory Board would be part of the new UK Dementia Research Institute and include all dementia stakeholders. It would work with the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to develop and appropriate regulatory framework.

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