Test & Measurement

SymPulse Tele-Empathy replicates symptoms of Parkinson’s

27th April 2017
Enaie Azambuja

Klick Labs, a digital healthcare innovation lab, has introduced the SymPulse Tele-Empathy Device, a Proof of Concept that wirelessly records and transmits patient tremors in real time to help foster clinical empathy and better care for the more than 40 million people living with movement disorders in the U.S. alone. The announcement underscores the innovation lab’s exploration of several applications and platforms to induce more empathy for patients across many disease states.

Unlike other inventions that attempt to replicate tremors via mechanical vibrations, Klick Labs’ SymPulse Tele-Empathy Device records continuous electromyogram data from the patient and wirelessly transmits it via Bluetooth to a custom-engineered electrical muscle stimulation armband for non-patients.

The patent-pending, experiential device induces involuntary muscle activity, which mimics patient tremors in real time, and enables physicians and family members to experience the difficulties of seemingly simple tasks, such as buttoning a shirt or using a mobile phone.

“We are extremely encouraged about our work in technology-mediated symptom transference, which we call tele-empathy, to help make healthcare more patient-centric,” said Yan Fossat, VP, Klick Labs.

“The SymPulse Tele-Empathy Device records and transmits patient tremors as data to give movement disorder physicians and caregivers a sense of what their patient or loved one is experiencing in real time.”

According to Dr. Jodi Halpern, Professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, “Skillful use of clinical empathy is essential for all three major aspects of effective medical care: accurate diagnosis, treatment adherence, and patient activation…We need innovative approaches to inculcate empathy in physicians, including exciting new interactive technologies that enable people to experience other people’s symptoms,” said Halpern, author of From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanising Medical Practice, (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Founder of Empathetics, Inc., said, “Improving clinical empathy should be at the forefront of institutional missions and interventions are needed to achieve these critical healthcare goals.”

A randomised controlled trial led by Dr. Riess found that, initially, 53% of physicians reported declining levels of patient empathy for several years; whereas only 33% reported increasing levels. The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in May 2012, also found that clinical empathy can be taught and can raise patient ratings of their healthcare.

Registered Physiotherapist Naomi Casiro believes symptom transmission offers benefits beyond just that of increased empathy. The Vancouver, BC-based clinician who only treats patients affected by Parkinson’s disease, said, “I can use my clinical expertise to analyse movement patterns and try to improve the patient’s capacity to perform daily motor tasks, such as buttoning a shirt or putting on a jacket. However, if I could combine these clinical skills with the experience of actually feeling how the patient moves, my ability to assess the movement challenges and problem-solve the solution would be amplified.”

As part of the device’s debut, video footage was released of 43-year-old early onset Parkinson’s patient Jim Smerdon wirelessly transmitting his tremors to his wife and identical twin brother Pat.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen my tremors in someone else,” Smerdon said. “I want everyone to be able to feel that…Nurses and neurosurgeons could experience (my tremors)…I think it will be a real game changer for them.”

Fossat said future versions, which use the Internet for remote transmission of symptoms, could be used for telemedicine. “We envision patients being able to transmit their tremors to physicians anywhere in the world to get more accurate diagnoses and better treatment,” he explained.

The implications of tele-empathy extend beyond the manipulation of muscle activity. Other types of disease and condition symptoms can be quantified and digitised using wearables with sensors that measure everything from the glucose level of someone’s tears to air flow and blood oxygen saturation levels. As a result, Klick Labs is also exploring symptom transference for diabetes and COPD.

With vast expertise creating VR experiences for the healthcare industry, the company also believes VR can be used to create clinical empathy. “We can leverage VR to bypass proprioception and simulate a particular gait of a patient with diabetic neuropathy or multiple sclerosis and virtually put other people in that patient’s shoes,” Fossat added.

According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, of the 10 million people living with the disease around the world, about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed each year, not including thousands of cases that go undetected.

In 2005, the Foundation estimated that more than 40 million Americans (nearly one in seven people) were affected by a movement disorder, including tremor, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s syndrome, dystonia, and spasticity.

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