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Using Sensors to Detect a Fall is Not Enough

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By Susan Saldibar

Few topics have received as much coverage in senior living communities as “falls”; and we’ve collectively learned a lot as a result. But there’s always more to learn. In fact, by combining what technology can detect, along with individual behavioral data and qualitative input from caregivers, we can get closer than ever before to mapping out a fall before it even happens.

I spoke with Jacquie Brennan, VP of Vigil Health Solutions, a Senior Housing Forum partner, who is doing some innovative work in the area of marrying their sensor/alert technology to caregiver insight and knowledge to better understand the anatomy of a fall in a way that incorporates each individual’s situation and behavior. And, while it’s hard to prevent a fall, we may be closer to becoming more attuned to what precipitates a fall and be able to do more, and do it faster.

“We are all creatures of habit to a certain degree and have patterns of behavior that we may not even be aware of,” says Jacquie. “Many of us awaken at the same time each morning because our internal clock wakes us. Or we awaken at the same time in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. The same goes for our residents.” What the sensors and software provide is a way to learn an individual’s safe patterns so we know when they are doing something unsafe or unusual. The key is to use a blend of sensor and alert technology, along with human input as follows:

  1. Detect Movement:

Sensors are great at this and can provide important feedback. Sensors can be placed as follows:

    • Within a resident’s bed

    • At doorways to detect entrance and exits

    • In restricted areas, such as a roommate’s private space

  1. Identify Patterns:

The key to utilizing sensors effectively lies in how the system interprets the data they provide. Simply placing sensors around a room and alerting staff every time they are activated will not improve care; in fact, it can become a distraction for staff.  

Using software that receives the sensor data and correlates it with behaviors -- being out of bed, leaving the room, time spent in the bathroom, agitation or restlessness -- makes the data more meaningful for staff. Presenting that data in a report format allows individuals working closely with the residents to compare it against their care plan and other clinical profiles to put together a comprehensive view of the resident.  

“What you are aiming for is a more holistic view of, for example, the movements of Mr. Jones in room 204,” says Jacquie. “As you gather more data, Mr. Jones’ movement profile and behavior patterns begin to develop. After a month or so you will get a better sense of what ‘normal’ looks like for Mr. Jones.”

  1. Use “rules” to Create a Fall Profile:

According to studies, (including one in 2012 from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) focusing on assisted living communities), most falls occur during the evening/overnight hours and most occur in residents’ rooms. So we’ll focus on overnight pattern development, using Jacquie’s example of Mr. Jones in 204. Here is what you need to determine:

    • Has Mr. Jones fallen before? If so, when and where? Chances are you are already keeping this data, but the more detail you have the better; and here is where you can really put it to use.

    • Is he a sound sleeper or prone to move around?

    • What’s his usual movement pattern?

    • Does he get up to go to the bathroom in the night? How frequently? Same time each night?

From this input you can begin to determine, not only what Mr. Jones’ regular movement patterns are, but what kinds of movements lie outside his norm which could precipitate a fall. Using sensor/alert technology, you can then set a “rule” to detect those motions and send a silent alarm to the nurse on staff to check in on Mr. Jones and make sure he’s okay.

Setting alarms from a set of rules can also give the night nurse making rounds better input for determining who might need more immediate attention. So, instead of relying primarily on sequential order for rounds, a silent alert system helps ensure that restless residents, who otherwise would “wait their turn”, move quickly to the top of the order.

And, if a Fall Occurs…

Even when someone has fallen, using a sensor/alert system facilitates a faster response. And, in addition to preventing further damage which can be caused by a delay of help, significant dollars can be saved -- for both the resident and the senior care provider -- by potentially avoiding an expensive hospital visit.

Of course nothing is ever a slam dunk when it comes to preventing a fall. But by using available technology, such as sensors and alert notifications, along with valuable human input, we can get closer than ever before to creating for each individual a “road map” of their nighttime movements. And, as with any map, if we know where they are going and when, we can improve the odds that they get there and back safely.  

For more information on using a combination of sensor/alert technology, rule setting and reports to better detect and anticipate falls please visit the Vigil Health Solutions website.

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