Research at KU Medical Center looks to find ways technology can help Alzheimer's disease caregivers

October 25, 2012

By Andy Hyland

With people increasingly interacting in a digital world, researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center are looking at new ways technology can help Alzheimer’s disease caregivers provide better care in the home for the more than 5 million people with the disease.

The research builds off an earlier pilot project funded by Frontiers: The Heartland Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. In that project, caregivers in the home are able to record a behavior that they may need help addressing and send it to a team of health care providers who would review the video later.

Caregivers pushed a button on a remote and the video system captured the incident, including several minutes before the button was pushed. The health care professionals would then review the video later and provide individualized recommendations to the caregivers.

Russ Waitman, Ph.D., associate professor and director of medical informatics, Department of Biostatistics, is the principal investigator on the new grant supported by the National Science Foundation’s EAGER-U.S. Ignite initiative, which is looking at new ways to use high-speed broadband technology to assist the process.

Waitman said that the upcoming Google Fiber project in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., would be an asset for the new research.

"We’ve got this unique opportunity with Google where bandwidth in the home is not going to be an issue," Waitman said.

The investigators will set up a number of new ways to look at how caregivers might better use the technology this time around.

He said the study could also point to new ways to integrate health care for people leading a "digital life," where many of their interactions will increasingly be captured via video over the Internet instead of in-person communication.

"This provides us with a lab to begin answering the question, 'How would one’s digital life engage with health care providers?'" he said.

Steve Fennel, director of telecommunications outreach at KU Medical Center, said that U.S. Ignite is a public-private partnership that is looking for ways to develop applications to take full advantage of new broadband technology.

"We’re asking, 'How do we improve the technology to add value to the caregiver?'" Fennel said. "Even more value could be added with a better technology solution."

Waitman will be collaborating with James Sterbenz, Ph.D., associate professor of engineering on KU’s Lawrence campus; and Kristine Williams, Ph.D., RN, associate professor of nursing at KUMC, on the project.

The project hopes to explore ways to build an application that uses Google Fiber, in addition to exploring videoconferencing capability that would allow more immediate feedback for the patient’s family and potentially to allow physicians and other care providers to work from home.

"This is all about the home," Waitman said. "With a network that good in the home, it can lead to a situation where physicians might be able to essentially make a house call for patients without ever leaving their own home."