There is a growing need for innovation in healthcare – not only in the UK but across the world. Ageing populations and long-term care require radical solutions to help us lead independent, fulfilled lives. CATCH, the University’s Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare, is focused on how the power of technology helps us to age better and live well.
Assistive technology supports users to self-manage their conditions – from an ‘intelligent’ shoe designed to improve a stroke survivor’s walking to delivering speech therapy through apps on a tablet. This isn’t a new concept. As Professor Luc de Witte of CATCH explained: “Glasses, hearing aids, smartphones – they are all assistive technology. What we need now are disruptive innovations that transform healthcare. We need to achieve more with less resources, not just in the West but in countries where there is a need to create healthcare systems from scratch. Collaboration on a global scale is required. Future healthcare without assistive technology is unthinkable.”
In a few short years, the University of Sheffield has become an international focus of research and development in this field. CATCH, established by Professor Mark Hawley (he is the Director) and based in the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), is truly multidisciplinary – in both its outlook and its practice.
“We have health services researchers, clinical staff, engineers, biologists, biomedical scientists, economists, computer scientists, architects, psychologists, therapists and physicists,” said Professor Hawley. “We have access to the latest technologies and advanced manufacturing processes – not only across the campus but across the region as well. We are also developing productive international partnerships. Current collaborators are in India, South Korea and China.”
Professor de Witte describes the Sheffield City Region as having fantastic potential and energy for assistive technology research: “The future success of affordable healthcare provision relies on innovation and Sheffield is a real key player in assistive technology. The city is at the heart of the UK and there are many partners working in this field close by – the two universities with their expertise in robotics, advanced manufacturing and healthcare alongside industry, charities, medical device and technology companies, and a large NHS presence.”
CATCH developed from Professor Hawley’s work with Barnsley Hospital, where he is an Honorary Consultant Clinical Scientist: “I started up a service for people with severe physical disabilities in the NHS. What we did ranged from communication aids through to devices to help people control the home. If you have a severe disability you can’t turn the TV on or you can’t get to the front door. We provide, through the NHS, the types of technology that allow people to do that.”
The initiative grew to the point where NHS England now commissions the service at Barnsley to support people across the Yorkshire and Humber region. “But I always felt that we were missing out on some of the technologies that we really needed,” Professor Hawley added. “I started working with the University of Sheffield to develop new types of technology and eventually did so much research that I decided to move to academia. I set up a group of four researchers in ScHARR and slowly began to build up contacts.
“Caring for an ageing population is one of the UK Government’s Four Grand Challenges as outlined in its Industrial Strategy. Our needs-driven approach – working with users – received financial backing from the University. Ten years later, we have 70 academics from 18 departments across five faculties working on projects across the width and breadth of assistive technology.
“My philosophy is that users should be involved in the research and development of technology that is tailored for their own needs. They then get something that they will be able to use, rather than struggling with something that is developed by a technologist. We work with NHS doctors, nurses and clinical scientists and so have access to their patients. We also collaborate with other care providers, and we operate a Citizen Science Database of people who provide their own perspectives on what works and what doesn’t for conditions such as stroke or heart failure.”
Professor Hawley is committed to seeing products developed through CATCH being available to people via the marketplace: “It is important for us to work with companies who might manufacture our products and then sell them on to the NHS from where they are provided to patients for free.
Much of what we are doing is software development for use on smartphones, tablets and wearable devices. Grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Catalyst Fund are allowing us to work with a number of private sector partners to develop these technologies. Sometimes they come to us with ideas; sometimes we approach them.”
CATCH and the University welcomed over 300 delegates – researchers, health and social care professionals and representatives from the healthcare industry – from around the world to the biennial conference organised by the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe in September 2017 (Professor de Witte is the association’s current President).
Professor Hawley commented, “This is just one example of how we actively facilitate discussions, create networking opportunities and share research. We know the positive impact that carefully designed and relevant user-friendly technology can have on healthcare – and I am proud that CATCH is proving to be an international focus for this work.”
↑Home from home
Located in CATCH, the Home Lab mimics the home or care environment. Patients or volunteer users test technologies within its living room, kitchen, bedroom or bathroom – under the watchful eye of researchers, carers and clinicians. Fitted with cameras and other sensor devices, a large amount of data is recorded and analysed from each session. A step between the laboratory and home, this facility is an invaluable tool for understanding the challenges faced by individuals.
Working as an app on a tablet, VocaTempo recognises the speech of children with severe speech impairments, who cannot normally be understood, and speaks out a clear version of the message they wish to convey. Once the app is trained to recognise a user’s voice, it can be controlled vocally. It is a hands-free method of communication, allowing users
with dysarthria (difficulty speaking) to communicate with everyone quickly, easily and without breaking eye-contact.
Professor Hawley is the lead researcher: “In 2017 we began working with Therapy Box, a London-based app development agency, and with funding from a Small Business Research Initiative grant, to build a proof of concept app for trial with real users. All major functionality was built into the test version, and the app was designed for ease of use for the therapists who would be setting it up. Early trials with young people with moderate to severe dysarthria have yielded very positive results.”
Mobile diagnostic and screening toolkit
This international project, led by Professor de Witte with collaborators from the Netherlands and India, developed a low-cost mobile diagnostic screening toolkit.
He explained, “The extent to which urban slum communities can access formal health services is very limited. While many organisations work tirelessly to provide care to these communities through health camps, mobile clinics, home visits and other initiatives, a wide range of barriers
to access remain for many urban slum residents.
“We designed the mobile diagnostic and screening toolkit, harnessing e-health and mobile health technologies, to enable non-medically trained personnel to perform basic health screening tasks, and support them in identifying more serious cases that need referral to formal health services. The portable kit was trialled in Bangalore and a successful prototype developed. A company is now being set up in India to market it.”
Can you help?
CATCH are keen for alumni to join their Citizen Science Database to either advise or take part in assistive technology projects. The database is run together with the Telehealth and Care Technologies theme of
the Collaboration for Applied Health Research and Care Yorkshire Humber. For further details, email Lauren Powell at email@example.com