Using AI to detect and prevent falls

By Saemmool Lee

Falling is one of the biggest challenges facing people with dementia. On average, nursing home residents with dementia fall 4 times a year, compared to residents without dementia, who fall 2.3 times in the same environment. About 75 percent of falls go unwitnessed in bedrooms. This makes it hard for residents to get care quickly, particularly given that many have a hard time communicating what has happened. Falls often result in repeated trips to the hospital to rule out worse-case scenarios.

SafelyYou, a startup emanating from 2015 CITRIS seed funding, produces AI-enabled camera systems that detect, in real time, falls of individuals with dementia. This allows caretakers to provide assistance right away, to detect how falls happened, and identify patterns to prevent future falls. Non-fall video is automatically deleted within 60 seconds and no audio is recorded; only video of falls is saved for review. SafelyYou also provides consulting on preventing falls based on the videos.

“For folks who fall a lot, each time there is 10 to 15 percentage chance that they have a hip fracture or something like that,” says George Netscher, a founder and CEO of SafelyYou. “The sooner we can find out that they are falling, figure out how they are falling and put protection in place, the better the chances of preventing them from needing to go to the emergency room.”

Netscher has a personal interest in pursuing this research. “It seems that everyone on my mom’s side over a certain age gets Alzheimer’s,” says Netscher. First his late grandmother, then his mother’s older sister developed Alzheimer’s. “My mom is the next in line. Of course, we are all scared,” he says. “So, I’m really interested in using this window I have to improve the quality of care, if she does get it.”

In SafelyYou’s pilot research conducted at a memory care facility in California, falls of individuals with dementia decreased from 12 to 2 times per month over a three-month period with the video monitoring system, according to results published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research last year. “Since then, with the 11 communities involved in our research study,” says Netscher, “we are also collecting lots of anecdotal evidence about interventions to reduce the rate of repeat falls.”

Fall injury is among the 20 most expensive medical conditions in the United States, with an average hospital cost over $30,000. Marsha Obenauer, who has a mother with Alzheimer’s, says that her mother’s insurance “only goes so far when there’s repeated emergency trips to the hospital to urgent care or even an EMT. At a certain point, insurance doesn’t cover at all or it may not cover any of it.” Her mother is a resident at Carlton Senior Living center in Elk Grove, which has been using the SafelyYou system as part of SafelyYou’s research. “This has really helped us financially,” says Obenauer.

SafelyYou has raised external funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and several venture capital firms. The company has raised about $1.5 million total and will receive $500,000 additionally from the National Science Foundation through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, which awards its phase II grant over a period of two years.

SafelyYou is marketing its product to assisted living and skilled nursing centers. The company is focusing on five target regions to start: California, Texas, Washington, Illinois, and Ontario. After that, they plan to expand nationally and internationally. The startup’s early adopters include providers from California, Toronto, and Tokyo.

Sherrilynn Geban, a memory care manager at Carlton Senior Living center, says that the biggest benefit of deploying SafelyYou’s product is the “trust” from the families of residents. “The family members, they trust you more,” says Geban. “With the cameras there is a trust, where families can see and follow through with what happened, and also see that we are doing our job and taking care.”

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and the fifth leading cause of death for Americans aged 65 and older, and the only disease that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. 1 out of 10 of them, an estimated 5.5 million, live with the disease. The number is projected to reach 7.1 million by 2025, and 13.8 million by 2050.

Deaths from Alzheimer’s disease increased 123 percent from 2000 to 2015, while heart disease, the number one cause of death, decreased 11 percent. The direct costs of caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are estimated $277 billion annually in the U.S., and Medicare and Medicaid pays 67 percent of those costs.

“I think the reason technology is so important is simply to help with a really big challenge, like not sending people to the emergency room if they don’t need to go,” says Netscher. “So, we are reducing the cost of having the ambulance come out and things like that, but it also can be just simply improving people’s lives today.”

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Photos: Adriel Olmos