Tech brings home insight into mental health

Paul Mayne//Western News

Nursing and Psychiatry professor Cheryl Forchuk is leading a unique Smart Home Community Model project, outfitting affordable Canadian Mental Health Association housing units in London and Middlesex County with smart technologies for people dealing with severe mental illness.

From tablets and smartphones, to glucose monitors and medicine dispensers, a new Western-led research project anticipates these and other smart technologies will be make a huge difference in the health – and lives – of those dealing with severe mental illness.

Nursing and Psychiatry professor Cheryl Forchuk said bringing smart technologies into eight area affordable housing units will allow these individuals who call them home to be more autonomous in their ongoing journey towards improved health and well-being.

“This is for people who are having difficulty managing their everyday life and need a high level of care to maintain community living,” said Forchuk, noting four people have already enrolled in her Smart Home Community Model project. “Technology and applications are being embedded (in their homes) and tested to ensure they are safe, secure and appropriate for use in health care.”

Project participants can select from a wide range of tools, such as tablets and touch-screen monitors to provide video-conferencing, questionnaires, prompts and reminders based on their personal care plan. They will also have access to automated medication dispensers and smart-health monitoring devices, such as weigh scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers and tracking monitors for heart rate, activity and sleep.

Forchuk noted individuals dealing with schizophrenia and depression have four times the rate for diabetes, along with a higher rate of cardiac problems.

“By integrating and testing these smart tools for health care, we are not simply looking at just the technology, but how it can be used as a tool for communication,” she said. “We see smart technology supporting more seamless communication between health-care providers and the client – all from their own homes. This helps them better manage their care and overall wellbeing, flag issues earlier on and avoid trips to the clinic.”

Previous studies looking into the use of smart technology in assisting those dealing with mental illness saw patient visits to clinics drop by more than 30 per cent, freeing up the system for others in need.

Health teams will now have access to a patient’s data to more easily stay in touch. They can work together to track trends and pinpoint triggers, creating more personalized and effective strategies. With less focus on the daily aspects of care, providers reported that in-person meetings offered more meaningful and important discussions, Forchuk continued.

She also anticipates greater levels of independence and autonomy through this project for participants in maintaining housing and self-care for mental health and chronic illnesses. Any potential issues or crisis can be addressed earlier on, reducing psychiatric readmissions, emergency room visits or even arrests.

“It’s not about just having cool gadgets to play with. It’s very much individualized, to get a better sense of what people really need,” said Forchuk in determining what technology will suit each person best. “We are talking about people with higher needs and it will be up to them as to what they deem helpful, and to be able to have that immediate contact with their health-care provider.”

Forhuck hopes her findings will create a framework to take this project beyond London and into other communities across Ontario and the country.

“Our approach is to care for the whole person – mind, body and soul. It goes beyond managing the mental illness and is about supporting people in managing their life,” she said.