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mHealth’s Promise: Mobility With Meaning

From a remote-controlled robot for seniors to a tech-enhanced table for patients with limited mobility, mHealth is opening new doors in healthcare engagement.

By Eric Wicklund

- In California, a Silicon Valley startup is launching a mobile robot designed to keep seniors connected with their care providers – and in the future offer mHealth services like medication management.

In Virginia, a medical instrument company that developed a tech-enhanced table and laptop for paralyzed hospital patients is now looking to take its product into the home.

This is where mHealth is headed these days: Products that help people who can and should be in their own homes or independent living facilities, offering a connection when it’s needed and mobility when it’s hindered.

OhmniLabs, the Santa Clara-based robotics startup launched by a trio of Stanford grads, is putting its zero-touch robots into seniors’ homes and senior living facilities through partnerships with Home Care Assistance of North America (HCA), a national health and homecare provider, and California senior care facilities like The Heritage Pointe in Walnut Creek and Avenidas in Palo Alto.

Co-founder and CEO Thuc Vu says the company began developing its robots about a year ago as a simple companionship platform, and is finding its niche in places where seniors want to live independently but need to stay in touch with family and caregivers.

READ MORE: mHealth's Benefits Are Coming into Focus for Eye Doctors

“We started with the idea of creating an affordable robot for the home environment,” he says. “What we saw in (elder care) was that there were no other products like ours.”

The compact, 20-pound robots are currently designed to enable family and friends to check in on a senior. The company is now working on a tech platform that would link in healthcare providers, offer medication management services, even integrate wearables to collect vital signs.

That’s music to the ears of Lily Sarafan, HCA’s CEO. Also based in Silicon Valley, she says HCA has seen all sorts of “iPads on tripods” designed for senior services, but nothing that can maneuver through a home on its own and give caregivers and family members a complete view of the senior’s living situation. In addition, she says, the robot provides “a link to real, live humans,” rather than A.I.-infused platforms that offer help but not human interaction.

“We can’t be there all the time to provide 24-hour oversight, so we’re looking for (solutions) that can augment care,” she says. “We’re not only talking about quality of life, but giving (seniors) the tools they need to stay healthy.”

In senior centers like The Heritage Pointe and Avenidas, the robots can be placed in common areas like dining halls or activity centers, enabling family members to check in on their loved ones during meals or group activities. They can then move around to connect individually with seniors, offering one-on-one time or mHealth services.

READ MORE: Using Smart Devices and Wearables to Tackle Childhood Asthma

Across the country in the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, a specially designed “patient engagement table” gives paralyzed patients the opportunity to operate a laptop by eye commands. The table is created to fit around the patient’s bed, adjusting so that the patient can control the laptop with newly developed eye-gazing technology – surfing the Internet or Facebook, operating a TV remote control, reading and sending e-mail.

“It’s really opened up a whole new world for them,” says Kent Hochgertle, who manages new business development for GCX, based in Petaluma, Calif., which developed the table a little more than a year ago and recently enhanced it with eye-gazing tech designed by Tobii. “Some of these patients were ready to give up – they just didn’t see a path for themselves. This engages them and gets them to open up.”

And that’s where mHealth comes in. Hochgertle says the tables are a hit at VCU, and now have company executives wondering how they can be designed to fit in a patient’s home or assisted living facility, giving those patients an opportunity to re-engage with the world around them on their own terms.

“It’s something we’re looking at now more than ever,” he says. “Patient engagement is really kind of new to a lot of folks in this area, but you can see (with its use at VCU) how it changes things for the patient. … This could open the door to a lot of people, such as burn victims or those with ALS.”

“Now that the technology is there, we can really open up the door for a lot of people who haven’t had that opportunity,” he says.

READ MORE: mHealth Becomes a Valuable Tool in the Battle Against Suicide

And that’s what mHealth is all about.

Dig Deeper:

Studies: mHealth Sensors Help Seniors Avoid the Hospital

mHealth Study: Remote Monitoring Cuts Costs, Hospitalizations

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