Smart Devices and Their Impact on Societal Health

The integration of electronics into assistive devices to quantify and monitor the motion of individuals has the potential for immense societal health benefits. Dr. Erik Scheme’s team of researchers working on this project at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME), including post-doctoral fellow Dr. Satinder Gill, hope that these benefits will soon become a reality; therefore, they are ambitiously conducting research which will lead to a practical and effective product.

Their “smart” assistive devices, which include rollators, canes, crutches and walkers, contain sensors that permit the collection and exchange of various data types; thus, they are considered a branch of IoT technology. Internet of Things (IoT) is the general term used to describe the network of devices containing embedded electronics which enable internet connection capabilities. A major function, particularly of the cane, is to determine the amount of weight applied to the device by the user; however, “the IoT devices are not just about loading. They can determine how fast you are moving, the angle at which you are keeping the device, and your stability,” says Dr. Gill, who specializes in signal processing and wireless communications. More importantly, various gait pathologies and walking conditions can be recognized using machine learning and pattern recognition. This ability allows for the detection of abnormalities in the way that the user is walking. The data collected is then reported back to a mobile device or computer for further analysis.


“It hasn’t been a straight line from design, build, and then test,” states Dr. Scheme, faculty member of Electrical Engineering. Originally, the concept was tested in a product design and development course taught by Dr. Scheme in the Dr. J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship. The students in this course were required to develop a project that would address a societal need. Researchers at the IBME, recognized that physicians prescribed a particular weight that post-surgery patients should apply to their limb; however, the patients could not accurately measure the amount of force that they were bearing. The Smart Cane was then developed to resolve this issue; the project’s principal objective was to quantify the amount of force applied to the device and, by association, to the limb. Eventually, the students who launched the project were hired by Dr. Scheme to continue the research at the IBME. Throughout the past two years, Dr. Gill, Dr. Scheme and their team have redesigned the Smart Cane to enhance its capabilities. The research group, which encompasses undergraduate and graduate students alike, has also extended the product line to other “smart” devices. Dr. Gill is currently performing tests to better understand the potential of the project.  

These devices have a prospective future, with promise to generate a substantial impact on society. “We are really excited with this project because when you start digging into the data you can extract a lot of interesting information,” explains Dr. Scheme. This technology enables detailed monitoring of individuals; subsequently, it can be used to supervise people with various health complications. Dr. Scheme asserts that the major goal is to “become more proactive in health care.” Currently the health system is reactive: patients are triaged for surgery and not operated on until their condition worsens. The use of a smart assistive device would enable doctors to monitor and quantify the deterioration of their patient’s condition; therefore, they could perform a surgery before the patient becomes extremely impaired. The health care system could also record and measure the recovery of patients post-surgery. Likewise, health care professionals could supervise the health of seniors and intervene prior to an accident such as a fall, torn muscle, or broken bone. Furthermore, Dr. Gill adds that “rehabilitation patients could benefit,” as their progress and improvement in their programs would be continuously tracked. These devices are not meant to simulate the diagnostic capabilities of a physician, but to act as a tool to help the physician detect gait-related abnormalities. The use of this technology in the clinic could relieve our overtaxed health system from conducting repetitive monitoring.  

The IBME is confident that, in a few years, this ground-breaking project will reach the public; nonetheless, before it is made readily available, many stages of testing and data collection must be completed. Presently, Dr. Gill has validated the project with able bodied subjects. This process entails that healthy individuals use the devices and simulate various scenarios, for example “people walk as if they have a sore knee, or a pain in their foot” describes Dr. Gill. These preliminary tests ensure that the design works accurately and allows researchers to analyze and manipulate the data. Currently, the team is ready to transition testing to actual patients. The next step involves collaboration with medical partners, such as the Stan Cassidy Center for Rehabilitation and the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital, to conduct clinical trials. Following this, Dr. Gill and the team will move into the community to perform further tests; receiving feedback about the design from the public is a major advantage of this future step. Dr. Scheme notes that their “primary interest is to conduct research that will demonstrate the potential and benefits.”

The IBME encourages students, who wish to become involved in this fascinating field of research, to reach out and volunteer with the organization. Many paths can lead to a career in the biomedical field; consequently, both Dr. Gill and Dr. Scheme recommend that students pursue an undergraduate degree for which they have a passion. Dr. Scheme advises students to “follow and react to the path that life gives you, rather then deciding, rigidly, what you are going to do at the [beginning].”

Drastically improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and reactivity of our health care system are a few of the potential benefits of this project. Intensive research, conducted by the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, has opened the door for the benefits of this project to become a reality. A reality where patients are routinely monitored to prevent injury and accelerate recovery.


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