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GPs could prescribe technology to help treat dementia at home, researchers say

Sensors which monitor activity and devices which track vital signs are among the approaches being developed.

An elderly man (Joe Giddens/PA)
An elderly man (Joe Giddens/PA)

GPs could begin prescribing tailored technology to dementia patients to help them live at home for longer, scientists say.

A new £20 million research centre, based at Imperial College London, will develop low-cost tools to better manage the condition outside of hospitals and care homes.

Sensors which monitor activity, devices which track vital signs and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect changes in behaviour are among the approaches being explored.

The vision is to create a “dementia-friendly” home, which continually assesses a patient’s wellbeing.

Those behind the project believe it could cut hospital admissions from preventable illnesses and falls, by alerting healthcare workers to anything of concern as early as possible.

Professor David Sharp, head of the new centre, said doctors could begin offering such technology to patients within the next decade, following further research.

This project will help those living with dementia stay in their own homes for longer, with the dignity and independence we all deserve Chris Skidmore

“The GP might have a dashboard of different apps or different ways of engaging with people that they select, and then give a personalised package of apps that are particularly relevant to individuals,” he said.

“I think we are not that far away from having that level of electronic engagement.”

He added: “You might have your dementia engineer come over and deploy the technology into your home, and that would provide the kind of information that we are talking about.

“So this may sound like science fiction, but I think many of the elements of this are in place.”

Technology being developed by the team includes sensors to track heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, as well as brain activity, sleep and even a patient’s gait.

This data could be collated and analysed, flagging symptoms such as a high temperature, which could indicate a possible infection, or changes in walking pattern, which may suggest someone is at risk of a fall.

As part of the project, prototypes will be produced by engineers, tested with patients in a controlled setting, and then rolled out to a larger group to try out at home.

Around 850,000 people in the UK are living with dementia, with the number expected to rise to one million by 2025.

An estimated one in four hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia and 20% of these admissions are preventable, the researchers said.

Prof Sharp believes the current dementia care system is “broken”, but said it could be transformed with the help of technology.

“If you’re a dementia nurse, we think that our technology will allow you to prioritise how you use your time, it would allow you to be much more intelligent about the way you interact with patients,” he said.

“If we can improve the way GPs are operating, we can do that more effectively.

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An elderly woman’s hands (Yui Mok/PA)

“If we can reduce hospital admissions, if we can keep people out of care homes and out of hospital for as long as possible, that has major economic wins.”

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Advanced technologies such as robotics and AI have great potential to support us in illness or old age.

“This project will help those living with dementia stay in their own homes for longer, with the dignity and independence we all deserve.”

The new centre joins six others which together make up the UK Dementia Research Institute.

The project, a collaboration with the University of Surrey, will be funded by the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Fiona Carragher, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We’ve seen technology transform the lives of people with other health conditions – now, with the work of the UK Dementia Research Institute Care and Technology centre, this is dementia’s moment to benefit from the latest developments in AI, smartphone technology and social robotics.

“But this work has to go hand in hand with the promised Government overhaul of social care – or scarce, expensive and poor quality dementia care will only undermine our efforts to improve people’s lives through technology.”

PA

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