Top 5 strategies for reliable fall detection

Paul Baratta

According to the World Health Organization, falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide. And a staggering 37.3 million falls are severe enough to require medical attention each year. A wide range of factors contribute to fall risk, such as environmental hazards, illness, neurological and mental conditions, muscle weakness, poor vision, and medication to name a few.

One thing is certain though, the risk of falling only increases with age, and the CDC estimates that one in three older adults fall each year. Statistically speaking, that means you or someone close to you has already suffered from a significant fall injury.

A growing elderly population combined with rising healthcare costs has sparked new research and technologies to help detect and even prevent falls in high risk individuals. Let’s review 5 fall detection trends and challenges.

1. Physical monitoring

Healthcare providers making rounds to physically check on elderly patients and residents is nothing new. But it is worth mentioning as it is still common practice in hospitals, senior living facilities and home care.

The extent to which caregivers are physically present varies depending on the fall risk – from intermittent weekly home visits to round-the-clock “patient watch”. And it’s a tradeoff in terms of priorities and considerations. While greater physical presence provides faster fall detection and possible fall prevention, it’s extremely resource intensive and invasive for those being monitored. On the other hand, sporadic physical visits risk leaving an individual severely injured on the floor for hours or even days before a fall is discovered.

Many studies have also proven a correlation between interrupted sleep and an increase in certain risk factors associated with falls, such as dementia. So disturbing an elderly person’s sleep to physically check that they are safe in bed may actually be counter-productive.

2. Wearable fall detectors

Among the most high-tech scientific solutions available on the market, wearable fall detectors use advanced analytics and a combination of tri-axial accelerometer and gyroscope technology. More simply put, distributed body worn sensors measure the gait and orientation of the user, sounding or transmitting an alarm when an advanced algorithm senses motion that resembles a fall.

There are a variety of options available on the market – pendants, watches, eyeglasses, waist-worn belts, and various combinations thereof. All are designed to automatically alert first responders in the event the user is incapacitated from falling. And most work reasonably well. Some even proactively alert the user to adjust his/her posture to prevent a fall in the first place.

But like any wearable, there’s no guarantee that it will be worn. In fact, it’s quite common that elderly users forget to wear their sensors. Or they don’t want to wear their sensors. Or it’s impractical to wear their sensors; for example when showering, where the risk of falling is high.

Body worn sensors are also prone to false alarms, as even the most advanced algorithms have difficulty distinguishing a fall from an abrupt sit-down or a hand swatting a fly.

3. Intelligent home monitoring systems

Another fascinating AI based solution for elderly monitoring uses an algorithm to capture and analyze the usage of home appliances connected to a Zigbee wireless mesh home automation system. The system, designed to “learn” the typical usage of home appliances, senses any irregular appliance usage and triggers an alarm.

Now, admittedly, an alarm based solely on whether grandma made her morning coffee on time does not necessarily indicate a serious fall. However, the missed coffee in combination with other irregularities could. And in the unfortunate event that grandma suffers a serious fall at night before going to bed, she might lie on the floor for many hours before the home automation solution detects any irregularities in her morning routine.

So, while this might not be the first choice for a fall detection system, it does provide a good layer of redundancy and an additional benefit from an already existing home automation system

4. Pressure & motion sensors

A combination of motion and pressure sensors placed on beds, chairs, toilet seats or floors, are commonly used in hospitals and elderly care facilities to alert caregivers to the movement of elderly patients and residents. Many of these sensors also trigger an audible alarm or pre-recorded message to warn the user to remain where they are until assistance arrives.

While these sensors provide reliable detection of patient or resident movement, not all movement is indicative of a fall. In fact, even a slight re-positioning of the user can trigger a false alarm.

5. Video surveillance

Monitoring the elderly with video surveillance – in hospitals, senior living facilities, or increasingly at home – is a hot discussion topic. With video analytics ranging from rather straight-forward cross-line detection to more advanced acceleration and positioning algorithms, it’s possible to achieve the same level of fall detection reliability as with the previously described methods.

The distinct advantage of video surveillance technology for fall detection is that first responders can visually confirm alarms remotely and instantly. From a resource planning perspective, this means that a single person can effectively monitor hundreds or even thousands of individuals, dispatching first responders to assist only when a fall is confirmed. For those being monitored, it provides peace of mind without unnecessary disturbance.

However, video surveillance has other limitations, mostly relating to image detail and lighting challenges impacting the reliability of fall detection. And, arguably the most controversial aspect of video surveillance – data protection and patient privacy.

But, with the introduction of more affordable high-resolution thermal technology, healthcare providers can clearly visualize the location and position of an individual – even in total darkness. What’s more, thermal imaging completely protects patient privacy in advance of new GDPR legislation.

Multi-sensor technology provides the best protection

While there is no such thing as a 100%-effective fall detection or prevention solution, most experts agree that a combination of available sensor technology can greatly increase system reliability. And there is a growing acceptance by seniors as monitoring is a means to extend their independent living opportunities.

Integrating thermal video monitoring with other open-platform based fall detection systems provides valuable redundancy for more effective and reliable fall detection and prevention. More importantly, it provides peace of mind for the elderly, their families and their caregivers.

Watch how thermal imaging provides better fall detection:

 

 

 

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