Care with a ‘cyber’ twist

Using a small wireless computer and tiny sensors connected to the Internet will help older patients with mobility issues.


A professor at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science hopes his recent research — using a small wireless computer and tiny sensors connected to the Internet — will help older patients with mobility issues or loss of sensation avoid unnecessary and costly trips to the doctor or therapist while improving their ailments in record time.


The new CustoMed medical monitoring device, developed by UCLA engineering professor Majid Sarrafzadeh in conjunction with UCLA neuroscientist Reggie Edgerton, promises patients experiencing neuromotor impairment as a result of traumatic injury or chronic disease the ease and affordability of substantially shortened therapy and recovery times and the ability to complete their therapy at home while still under the watchful supervision of their doctor.


Using a CustoMed portable handgrip device containing tiny wireless sensors, patients who need restorative therapy for their wrists or hands, for example, can practice their doctor-prescribed exercises at home each day rather than visiting a physical therapist, as they normally would do.


And unlike traditional therapy, the data from each of these home therapy sessions is monitored, stored and transmitted to the patient’s doctor wirelessly through the Internet. At the end of the day or the end of the week, the doctor can review the information, see how the patient is progressing and, if need be, change the course of therapy or even schedule an immediate follow-up appointment based on the information.


“Most patients visit the doctor after surgery and are asked to rate their pain and tell their doctor how much they have been moving the affected area,” said Sarrafzadeh. “This usually results in a very qualitative but not very informative answer. The patient says, ‘Oh, I haven’t been moving my wrist or my back much’ or ‘I’ve been moving my knee a lot lately,’ but what does that really mean?” By using the CustoMed device, the doctor can see patterns of movement and stress on the injury and make or adjust therapy recommendations. It’s a huge step forward in round-the-clock treatment.”


“This device should enhance our patient care — we can readily monitor the status of a patient and change the therapeutic prescription on a daily basis and know exactly the performance capability of that patient during the recovery process,” said Edgerton, a professor of physiological science. “The device is also designed to have important motivational features for the patient. It’s an exciting development.”


Not only does the patient have the ongoing support of the doctor, but because they can perform the exercises at home and receive direct feedback, they are more likely to complete the prescribed therapy, Sarrafzadeh said. Another benefit is that the recovery time may be considerably shortened.


“In speaking with medical doctors about this device, many feel that patient recovery could see a dramatic improvement, from six months of recovery time to mere weeks, because the patient has greater access to the therapy and greater control of their own recovery,” Sarrafzadeh said. “That’s incredibly encouraging for patients who want their therapy to be highly effective, affordable and flexible enough to meet their lifestyle. Many seniors today are active and want to stay that way, so this kind of treatment is especially significant for them.”


With very little adjustment, the device also can be used to monitor patients who have undergone knee surgery or who have spinal cord injuries. By adding a few additional components to the CustoMed device, the movement of an injured knee or spinal area can be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Sarrafzadeh and his graduate researchers — Foad Dabiri, Tammara Massey and Ani Nahapetian — have been working on a number of related devices, including a pressure-sensing tennis shoe. The shoe would be a breakthrough for diabetic patients who have lost sensation in their feet, alerting them when blood flow has been compromised and preventing the possible loss of a foot.


Much like a pocket PC, the basic technology of the CustoMed device is similar from application to application, so the device can be customized to fit individual needs in a relatively short amount of time, allowing the patient take it home directly from the physician’s office.


“Rather like an off-the-shelf computer, the devices all start out the same, but you can add different bells and whistles to fit the individual,” Sarrafzadeh said. “So it’s extremely flexible to meet both the doctor’s and the patient’s needs.”


The CustoMed devices, which are currently being tested in human trials, may be available to consumers as early as next year. Sarrafzadeh and his colleagues anticipate that the durable device will retail at around $200 to $300, depending on the customization needs.