Health IT Pulse

Jul 14 2011   1:54PM GMT

Mobile sensing technology could help track the health of seniors

AnneSteciw Profile: AnneSteciw

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One important goal of community health is to improve the overall quality of life for patients. Everyday behaviors of patients — such as social interaction and physical activity — can be indicative of overall health and predictive of future health problems. But collecting such data through periodic surveys or self-reports can be problematic. Here’s where mobile sensing technology could help.

Though mobile sensing technology has been used to study the feeding and social patterns of zoo animals, it has received less attention in the area of human health care. Researchers at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in Lebanon, NH wanted to see if using a wireless mobile device to measure sociability and physical activity in older adults could be as effective as traditional methods for collecting the same data.

The study, which was published in the July/August issue of Annals of Family Medicine, involved eight participants over the age of 65 who wore a small mobile sensing device from morning through evening for 10 days. The sensing device contained an accelerometer; a microphone; sensors for barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, visible light and infrared light; and a battery and processor. The device measured time spent walking level, up or down an elevation, time spent stationary (sitting or standing), and time spent speaking with 1 or more other people.

The participants also completed four questionnaires designed to assess social and physical activity levels both before and after the study, as well as a brief usability questionnaire about the device and trust of sensing devices. Researchers then compared the data collected by the mobile devices with the data collected by traditional methods. They found that the data sets correlated highly, but data collected by the mobile devices was less prone to biases associated with questionnaires that rely on recall.

When questioned about usability, study participants indicated frustration with the questionnaires (noting their complexity and length) but felt that the mobile sensing device was comfortable and easy to use.

Though the study sample size was too small to make any definitive conclusions, the study authors believe that if the results can be replicated in a larger study, “the potential applications for this technology are intriguing,” and “as more people are carrying sensors as part of everyday mobile devices, the potential to detect health problems and monitor treatment could become more efficient and effective.”

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