Can a robot help keep seniors healthy at home? New project hopes to find out

By Colleen Weinkam, WCPO

The University of Cincinnati’s College of Nursing plans to launch a research project this winter to bring telehealth robots into the homes of local older adults.

In January, UC nursing and engineering students will work together to send telehealth robots to Maple Knoll Village retirement community in Springdale to conduct physicals, said Debi Sampsel, chief officer of innovation and entrepreneurship at UC’s College of Nursing. The robots are equipped with two-way viewing technology, allowing patients to see their doctors’ faces and doctors to see their patients from a remote location.

After gathering data from the physicals, students will conduct focus groups at Maple Knoll’s three affordable senior-housing residences — the Meadows, on the campus of Maple Knoll Village in Springdale, Mt. View Terrace in Reading and Corbly Trace in Mount Washington — to see whether older adults living in those apartment complexes would welcome telehealth robots’ coming into their homes to help them manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure.

The hope is that, one day, telehealth robots will be able to conduct in-home visits for many older adults across the Tri-State. The longer-term goal, Sampsel said, is for older adults to live in their homes longer, known in the industry as “aging in place” — and learn how to live more healthfully.

Fitting Technology to Community

Sampsel said UC nursing and engineering students have been laying the groundwork for the telehealth robot research project for the past year and a half, completing trial work and viability testing.

Gaurav Patil, a 26-year-old doctoral student in mechanical engineering, has been working with Sampsel on telehealth robotics since the spring of 2013.

“In terms of technology, we already know that the technology is out there,” he said. “We can do a lot of stuff with robotics, but we need to figure out how we can adapt the technology to the specific needs of the community.”

Graduate nursing student Taylor Ferguson, 26, is jumping into the project in January to conduct the Maple Knoll health assessments as a nurse practitioner.

“Telehealth allows patients to maintain autonomy without having a person come in and check on them all the time,” she said.

Maple Knoll Partnership a ‘Win-Win’

Maple Knoll has served as a partner to UC’s College of Nursing for 30 years. In 2012, the partnership expanded when a villa on Maple Knoll’s campus was transformed into a “smart house,” a learning and test environment for the development of technologies aimed at keeping older adults in their own homes or communities longer. It also expanded to include UC’s Engineering and Applied Science, Medicine and Allied Health Sciences colleges.

Through the partnership, UC students tackle problems Maple Knoll staff members encounter in their work and develop innovative solutions.

In addition to the telehealth robot-research project this year, UC nursing and engineering students also are collaborating to develop a more ergonomic design for medication carts. Maple Knoll nurses now must squat or bend over to find items they need on carts, said 22-year-old UC nursing student Kyle Woodward. That can lead to back injuries.

“We thought this was something that was rather functional and needed in the nursing world,” he said. “Back injuries are a too common occurrence within the medical profession.”

Jim Formal, president and chief executive of Maple Knoll Communities Inc., said the partnership with UC benefits everyone involved.

“Partnering with the University of Cincinnati is a win-win that creates learning and research opportunities for students while enhancing the lives of seniors,” he said. “Because of this relationship, we can be a part of groundbreaking technology that will improve care for older adults in the community and impact the way they receive it.”

To fund the telehealth robot research project and expand it beyond Maple Knoll and the focus groups, the UC College of Nursing plans to apply for a federal grant this summer.