Researchers at Northumbria University, Newcastle, are developing a “virtual physiotherapist” that could help older people recover more quickly after a fall or injury. The robotic walking frame could reduce the length of time they need to stay in hospital.

Mobility is a critical factor when it comes to the aging process. Reduced mobility can have a serious impact on health, and once an older person gets to a certain level of immobility, their decline can really accelerate. Professor Lynne Coventry, Director of Northumbria University’s Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Lab, explains: “This technology aims to help maintain the mobility of older adults, by understanding what goes wrong if they have a fall. It also encourages them to be physically active as much as possible and helps to prevent falls in the first place. The frame will also help physiotherapists to understand the physical motion of older adults as they’re walking and establish if they have any problems. It can also help physiotherapists to administer tests and to set exercises for patients to do on daily basis to keep them on their feet.”

Features

The electronic walker has been designed to be initially used in hospitals. There it would stay by the patient’s bed to encourage them to complete regular mobility and strength exercises. It is fitted with technology that enables it to issue voice commands to its patient. Those help persuade them to complete regular activities like going for a walk, gripping, standing and balancing.

The walker also acts as a walking companion; travelling with its patient as they walk prescribed distances. It monitors progress as well as offers physical support if it’s needed. It can also assess how the patient has performed, and make adjustments. The data can be fed back to the care team monitoring the patient’s progress. This provides detailed data of walking patterns or gait that would allow them to assess if the patient was at risk of future falls.

Professor Coventry added: “We’ve added a persuasive element to encourage the patient. So the walker will wake up and send a message that it’s time to go for a walk. We’re also able to add in goals that the walker can encourage the patient to complete. It’s a great companion for the patient to have, and feedback so far from our testers has been really positive and encouraging.”

Source: Northumbria University