Generally speaking, people tend to dislike doing the exercises that are part of physiotherapy. Not helping matters is the fact that in many cases, patients must travel to a clinic to perform those exercises under the supervision of a trained professional. Now, researchers from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems FOKUS are developing a “telerehabilitation” system that allows patients to perform exercises at home or when out and about, while still receiving feedback from a physiotherapist.
The system consists of a mini-PC-like internet-connected “physio box,” a mobile sensor unit, and “exercise editor” software.
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To begin, the physiotherapist uses the exercise editor to create an exercise program that is suited to a specific patient’s needs, and which involves an increase in the intensity of the exercises over the course of several weeks. Once it’s ready to go, the program is loaded onto the patient’s physio box.
Once at home, the patient hooks that box up to their TV. The first time they use it, the physio box utilizes its Kinect camera and built-in software to map the patient’s bodily parameters in 3D, and create a biomechanical computer model of that person. Subsequently, the patient will be guided through their exercises by an on-screen animated avatar.
Using its camera and the model it created, the box will keep track of the patient’s movements, and then send that data to the physiotherapist via the internet. After assessing the data, the therapist can then remotely adapt the patient’s exercise program as required.
The mobile sensor unit contains tools such as a heart-monitoring chest strap, to measure vital signs such as pulse, oxygen saturation levels, and – in cases where applicable – electrocardiogram readings. Linked to the user’s smartphone, the unit sends its gathered data to the physiotherapist, so it can be combined with the data from the physio box. If the patient’s heart rate is dangerously high while exercising, for instance, the therapist may decide to reduce the intensity of the program. An app on the smartphone will also alert the patient in real time, should they be pushing themselves too hard.
The researchers are additionally looking into using sensors attached to each of the patient’s limbs, to allow their phone to monitor their movements while away from their home and physio box. In this way, their physiotherapy could include things such as walking to work using a certain stride, or doing exercises at their desk while on a break.
A small group of patients have already tried the system out, but a field test of a larger group is scheduled to begin next month. The system could reportedly be ready for use by this summer (Northern Hemisphere).