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Exploring the future of assistive technology in community care

From smart clothing to in-home monitoring systems, assistive technology has the significant potential to support older people and people with disability to remain living independently at home.

Ahead of his keynote presentation to the ATSA Independent Living Expo next month, Community Care Review talks to UK-based entrepreneur and educator Dr Barend ter Haar about current developments in assistive technology, particularly in the area of pressure care.

What are some of the emerging developments that signal the future of assistive technology?

Dr Barend ter Haar

The most significant elements relate to a mix of new materials, miniaturisation, and the value of satellite-based telecommunications.

In the field of pressure care, better understanding of how different layers of the skin respond to potentially damaging effects – not just from pressure but also from shear, friction, heat and moisture – means that materials can be developed for support surfaces.

To restrict the damage to the skin, we need cushion and mattress covers that dissipate heat and moisture build up and can allow the surface to move under the skin, so that the skin does not distort.

What developments are being made in the area of pressure mapping?

Assessment tools such as pressure mapping are benefitting from miniaturisation of technology to make the systems more portable and less expensive. These tools, such as the BodiTrak systems from Vista-Medical in Canada, help to assess where the skin and underlying tissues are at most risk from changes in pressure.

The flexible pressure mapping materials and technology that have appeared over recent years can also be sewn into garments that can monitor forces as the person moves around. These sensors can also measure temperature and moisture, and are the forefront of smart clothing.

In what other ways do you see new technologies playing a role in how assistive technology can better support clients?

Other technologies which have been developing strongly over recent years have been home-based systems that can go under the mattress or under a seat cushion to monitor things such as an individual’s pulse or respiratory rate. The outputs from these systems allow evaluation of quality of rest and sleep, and indications of deterioration due to general ill health or adverse reactions to drugs, for example.

What changes are needed at a policy or service level to ensure clients can access quality assistive technology?

The challenge is that the number of people making use of the technology is increasing and therefore more funding is needed by health providers. A consequence is that procurement agencies are trying to reduce the costs to the providers, and they do this often by trying to commoditise the products and solutions.

However, the nature of the disabling effects of ageing differs from person to person and the individual needs an assessment so an appropriate solution can be prescribed.

How does Australian assistive technology compare with the international market?

A relatively small domestic market and geographic distance means the number of products available in Australia is a lot less than can be found in the Northern Hemisphere.

An exception is where the materials of the solutions are readily available locally: the prime example is medical sheepskin and wool, as in Shear Comfort products from Adelaide, where Australia leads the world.

However, a number of companies in Australia have improved their expertise in sourcing best of class solutions from around the world, and as a result the choice gap has decreased significantly in the last 10 to 20 years.

A key challenge in Australia is the ability to be able to let the consumer know what is available. Australia has the unique situation where the TGA restricts Australian companies from promoting medical benefits of products to consumers, by mail or by website, to enable them to make their own informed choices.

Dr Barend ter Haar is the managing director of rehabilitation equipment supplier Healthcare Innovations Australia and BES Rehab in the UK. He is presenting at the free ATSA Independent Living Expo on 10-11 May in Sydney.

Community Care Review is an event media partner.

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