Hi-tech home-based health monitoring will be a vital part of the solution offered to alleviate some of the healthcare pressures posed by the world’s ageing population over the next 20 years.
That is the firm prediction of University of Ulster experts who have unveiled an initiative that will boost the already thriving intelligent-sensor technology sector on both sides of the border.
With the world population over 65 set to rocket from 600 million in the year 2000 to close to two billion by 2050, researchers say that health and social services will be stretched to the limit unless new approaches are adopted.
Cutting edge research in many disciplines is enhancing Ulster’s standing as a base for ground-breaking research.
The latest UK-wide Research Assessment Exercise has reported strong world-leading and internationally-leading quality research at Ulster, with areas such as Metallurgy and Materials, and Computer Science and Informatics, significantly climbing the UK university league tables.
As more people with a range of health problems live longer, specialist firms are developing health monitoring systems that people can use in their own homes.
“The drive is for independent living,” explains Professor Jim McLaughlin, Director of the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre (NIBEC) at the University of Ulster.
Professor Chris Nugent, from the Computer Science Research Institute at Ulster, adds: “Both patients and healthcare professionals can benefit through patients having a more proactive involvement in the management and monitoring of their own health.”
A new world class cross-border Centre for Intelligent Point of Care Sensors, to be operated jointly by Ulster and Dublin City University (DCU), will drive all-island research and development in the sector. The Department of Employment and Learning (NI) has awarded Ulster £2million to develop the collaboration.
A specific element of the work will focus on point of care sensors for cardiovascular analysis. Point of care sensors are hand-held, wearable or transportable devices used in the home or hospital to provide on-the-spot analysis of patient vital signs and facilitate speedy analysis by health professionals.,
NIBEC has had marked success with spin-out companies producing wireless electrodes and vital signs devices which are now widely used to monitor electrocardigram (ecg) arrhythmias associated with heart disease.
Academics at Ulster say its thrust in sensory monitoring is helping to make engineering and computing a popular and sought-after undergraduate option, reversing a trend over recent years. Ulster’s electronics degrees attract increasing numbers of undergraduates who are quickly scooped up by Northern Ireland ICT firms hungry for talent to aid business growth.
Professor McLaughlin says: “What we are doing now, again, is bringing the University’s computing, engineering and sensor device skills together so as to address a major problem that faces many of our indigenous firms – industry’s need for electronic and highly skilled computing engineers. That is an absolute necessity. Parents and students are now getting the message that engineering is a hot subject because industry will employ heavily in that area.”
Professor McLaughlin is Director of the Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials Research Institute. He says new partnerships with DCU will answer the medical device sector’s need for a forum of excellence in development of intelligent sensory technology. Professor McLaughlin jointly leads Ulster’s side of the project with Professor Nugent, who is Professor of Biomedical Engineering within the School of Computing and Mathematics.
The partners are the island’s two main centres in Intelligent Sensor Technology – namely, the NIBEC/ Computer Science Research Institute at Ulster and the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute, DCU. The project will blend Ulster’s software-electronic device strengths with DCU’s biochemical specialisms.
Professor Nugent, who is based in the Faculty of Computing and Engineering, says: “An all-Ireland forum will help the patient because it will create new solutions to aid with healthcare problems. One of our aims will be that people can take more control of their health within their own homes and will spend less time in hospital and GP surgeries. That will have the potential to save the health service money.”
DIY-type health awareness has been around for a long time. At its most basic, it has existed in the simple home thermometer or personal weighing scales. People now have access to self-testing systems for blood pressure, heart-rate, glucose and cholesterol.
Those systems are being refined all the time to ensure effective monitoring of vital signs, blood-waste management, data analysis, information flow and researchers are developing new devices that monitor movement, falls, Stroke factors and other indicators. With internet connectivity, GPs or other clinicians can observe a person’s condition and intervene with treatment as required.
Professor Nugent says: “Technology can offer one solution to the current healthcare challenges we are faced with. In the future, as we all grow older and need increased levels of healthcare support, healthcare systems will have to be reformed to deal with this. Technology is now being viewed as one possible solution to this problem. ”