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A Maltese technology solution to assist caregivers

A research project by the University of Malta and funded by the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) conducted over four years has successfully showcased an intelligent technical system that supports caregivers.

The Pervasive Nursing and Doctoral Assistant (Pinata) provides a patient-centric system powered with ambience intelligence techniques and semantic web technologies that make meaning out of what is happening in the environment. These technologies can be used to monitor the patients’ stay in a hospital or any other caregiving facility, trace down their medical records, monitor their diet, track their movement and detect incidents such as falls.

The research was conducted by the Department of Intelligent Computer Systems at the Faculty of ICT at the University of Malta and funded by Mcast through a €125,000 grant from its Research and Innovation Fund. It was coordinated in collaboration with St James Hospital Holdings which provided important input in terms of the requirements of the medical sector, and was piloted under controlled conditions in a live setting.

“The patients will be in safer hands considering that a 24/7 system will be monitoring what they are doing,” Alexiei Dingli, senior lecturer at the Faculty of ICT and project leader, explained to i-Tech.

“The system is fully automated thus it never gets tired and always offers the same level of protection. We’ve also removed the human element from the loop meaning that the system will be cheaper since there isn’t a person physically checking what’s going on. Apart from that, both healthcare professionals and the relatives of the patient can check their status 24/7 through an online portal thus ensuring that they are well. I think a lot of people will start sleeping again once the system is installed, knowing that their loved ones are not alone but they are in safe hands.”

Pinata technology has been designed with real-life settings in mind. There are certain conditions like dementia which results in a person getting confused, as a result of which they might escape the family home and wander aimlessly without the knowledge of their loved ones. Pinata can realise when this is happening and stop him from doing so, while alerting the next of kin in the process.

A recurrent nightmare for most people who have elderly parents is to discover that their loved one fell during the night and spent hours lying on the floor. The system can automatically detect falls and raise an alarm.

Furthermore, the system can track the dosage of pills.

Pinata will help decrease the time wasted on mundane tasks such as filling in forms and looking up patient records. This will maximise the time that doctors and nurses can dedicate to their patients. It can also be used to help extend the independent living of elderly people rather than placing them in a retirement house.

The Pinata system makes use of Wi-Fi, RFID tags, cameras and mobile devices which collect and distribute data through software.

Although it sounds simple enough, the project team had to face some important challenges, Dr Dingli admits.

“We wanted to create a low-cost ambient intelligence system in order to make it financially accessible to most people since our target audience was mainly the elderly. So finding adequate technology at a low cost was a feat in itself.

“Furthermore the technology was not mature enough. In fact we had to change a number of things as we went along, for example, RFID tags were like a sticker when we started which could be stuck to bottles containing medicine. Now we found a new type of RFID tags which are edible and thus we can integrate directly in the pills.

“We also faced resistance from certain sectors in Malta. Even though our technology was probably a decade ahead of most European countries, we had problems to find test cases in Malta.”

Despite all these challenges, the project is being regarded as very successful and the promoters are seeking ways to deploy it commercially.

“Pinata can be integrated in institutional homes but apart from that we would like to have it in private homes thus helping our elderly live an independent life in their own community without having to leave their home. This is something which not only applies to Malta but to most developed country since we have an ageing population (which will reach 34 per cent in Europe alone by 2050) and it would be impossible to host all of those people in institutional homes.

“For Northern Africa, we’re looking at a different scenario whereby the most important thing is remote care since you have workers in the desert or on oil rigs located in remote location. Pinata can help over there as well,” added Dr Dingli.

The research generated from Pinata has been published in various international conferences and journals around the world. Furthermore, MCST is committed to provide funds for the commercialisation phase.

The researchers are already looking at ways to update their project with new technologies, such as using edible RFIDs and creating a natural interface to the system which makes use of natural languages such as Maltese and English. Thus, persons who are not tech-savvy can use the system using voice commands.

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