Groundbreaking flexible sensors fitted into the beds of aged care residents able to detect if they are in bed or not, breathing and track heart rate during the night could become the norm across the sector in years to come.
The innovative research project got underway at RMIT University in Melbourne earlier this year thanks to a $1.7 million Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) federal government grant awarded to Sleeptite, a commercial company aiming to harness sensor technology to improve the health and wellbeing of older Australians.
If successful, real-time monitoring of aged care residents as they sleep using a dashboard system would become reality.
RMIT’s Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group, an expert unit of electronics engineers, and bed manufacturer Sleepeezee make up the collaborators on the project.
Canvassing the views of numerous nurses and carers working in the sector, Sleeptite CEO Cameron van den Dungen says the prospect of technology that would help supervise and monitor patients received positive feedback from the workforce.
He says nurses and carers working on night-shift face greater challenges, including poorer staff-to-resident ratios.
“Their workload through the course of a night is absolutely horrendous,” Mr van den Dungen says.
“They spoke to me about it being a really tough shift on them.
“Our idea is to provide a safety net for those nurses and carers to be able to know that if they are tending to one person in a room because there’s a drama there a sensor within the bed will alert them to any other areas of concern.”
The Non-Executive director of the Forty Winks group of bedding companies, which his father helped establish, Mr van den Dungen began investigating the potential to integrate sensor technology into bedding a decade ago.
He initially uncovered barriers largely related to unreliable data being obtained from the surface of a bed.
Further research led him to settling on wanting to develop a proximity sensor, embedded within the sleep environment and able to non-invasively monitor biometrics such as heart rate and breathing, accredited as a medical advice by regulatory bodies like the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Mr van den Dungen’s idea built momentum when he partnered up with RMIT researchers, co-led by Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran, adept at building flexible, unbreakable sensors capable of being fitted into bedding products.
Dr Bhaskaran and her team had been testing their sensors across various settings, such as detecting dangerous gases, and monitoring the amount of UV exposure a person experiences during the day.
But the approach by Mr van den Dungen immediately appealed because it would enable the sensors to “get out of the lab and into the real world”, with the potential to enhance the quality of life for aged care residents as well as the services provided by nursing staff.
“What we’re developing is a cost-effective way to improve the supervision and monitoring of people living in aged care and assisted living facilities, especially at night,” Dr Bhaskaran says.
“The new technology is designed to give nurses, carers and aged care facility managers greater insight into the health and wellbeing of patients within their care.”
After securing the grant, the three-year project kicked is in lab testing mode and will progress to field trials in early 2019 where up to 50 beds will be monitored across several aged care facilities.
Phase one of the project, which Mr van den Dungen expects to be on the market in a year, will see sensors built that are able to detect whether a person is in bed or not and how long they have been out of bed.
“What we want to do is monitor if they fall in any point in time, if they are out of bed for X amount of time. We’ll also be monitoring the response times to make sure carers are actually getting to them in time as well.”
Phase two of the project aims to achieve Class II medical device level by monitoring whether a resident is breathing or not.
The final phase, and most difficult, will work towards a proximity sensor that can read a heart rate at a Class IIb medical device level.
Elsewhere, the research team will also explore other potential areas where sensors can be utilised, such as in detecting when a person is about to fall and incontinence.
“This is again to be able to be that safety net,” Mr van den Dungen explains.
“We don’t necessarily want to be used as the only device for monitoring heart rate in a medical environment. If we get robust enough with our data, who knows what the outputs might be down the track. But right now, our focus is on the aged care market and being that safety net through the course of a night.”
Mr van den Dungen has years of experience supplying bedding and furniture to aged care providers and says he is confident of sector-wide support.
One of the core aims of the project was to fill a gap in current monitoring technologies available labelled either too expensive or unreliable, he adds.
“If we get our pricing right and we deliver the program exactly as I envisage it, I would be shocked if the vast majority of the industry didn’t pick up this program because it’s not going to be a cost impediment to them,” he suggests.
“If we can show them that we’re not going to cost them that much more money but we can deliver a far safer environment for their residents, which in turn lowers the potential costs through risk, I’d find it hard pressed for anyone to knock back our program.”
Back in the lab at RMIT, Dr Bhaskaran says while the project is still in its early stages, the task is proving exciting.
“The kinds of challenges we have in this type of project are very different to the challenges we usually have,” she says.
“It’s not so much about how you make the sensor perform better or how can we uncover more fundamental properties or things like that. It is more about how can we actually scale up this technology. How can we make the sensor washable and ideal for practical use?”