Transformative technologies for patients and the NHS

Simon Butler was previously a Grow MedTech Technology Innovation Manager, based at Sheffield Hallam University. He is now helping start-ups and businesses bringing health and wellbeing innovations to market in his new role as Head of the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) Wellbeing Accelerator.

The AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator is based in Sheffield Hallam University’s new Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, which houses over 3,000 square meters of specialist facilities including 3D printers and laser cutters for rapid prototyping, laboratories for product testing, a clinical research centre, and support networks. 

In this article, Simon shares his thoughts on supporting the commercialisation of assistive and rehabilitative technologies. 

It’s clear that demand on the NHS is growing and our health services are under increasing pressure. New technologies aren’t a panacea for this problem, but they can certainly help – in particular assistive and rehabilitative technologies. 

There will always be a cohort of patients who, because of disease or trauma, need help to recover and resume their lives as before. For this cohort, there’s no doubt that an assistive or rehabilitative technology can be completely transformative. 

But there is another rapidly growing cohort – that of an increasingly ageing population – where new assistive and rehabilitative technologies can help the NHS to deal with the pressure this creates.

As people live longer, but not always in good health, the impact of disease and disability is increasing the burden on the NHS. 

Rehabilitative technologies that can help these patients remain mobile, independent and healthier not only transform their lives, but relieve our health services as well. 

Stroke recovery 

I’ve been supporting one such project at Sheffield Hallam University that brings together physiotherapists, stroke physicians, physical activity and exercise specialists and computer scientists to improve rehabilitation for people with stroke.

The team, led by Professor Chris Smith, has been working with a local company which makes power-assisted exercise equipment, to enable people with limited mobility to do physical exercise.  

One problem with the machines for rehab purposes was that they didn’t tell users how much effort they were putting in and how much was being generated by the machine, so patients couldn’t see how they were improving. 

The Sheffield Hallam team, using a Grow MedTech Proof of Feasibility grant, is developing an exercise programme for the machines based on clinical principles, that will help people with stroke to increase their endurance and strength.

They’re also developing bespoke software for the machines, that will integrate the exercise programme and provide feedback to users. 

The project has been working with patients to develop the programme and software, and the system will be trialled with 15 stroke patients, and then further refined based on their experience. 

Positive feedback 

Exercise programmes can be hard to maintain when patients are not seeing any improvement and this can demotivate them to maintain exercise regimes or lifestyle changes. 

It is also important to be able to monitor certain conditions that affect movement, such as osteoarthritis. With a long-term progressive disease such as this, it can be hard to accurately monitor how a patient is doing over time.

A project led by Dr Adar Pelah at the University of York, and involving a team of academics, clinicians and an industrial partner, is using gait analysis (pictured above) to look at how the way a patient walks changes when the patient develops musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis.

Whilst the technology has value as a diagnostic tool, being able to pick up the condition at an early stage, it can also be used to monitor how the disease is progressing and if there are any improvements, perhaps due to a lifestyle change or therapy.

This gives doctors the evidence to select the most appropriate treatment and encourage patients to, for example, continue to lose weight or carry on with an exercise programme.   

The team, which involves the University of York and Cambridge University Hospitals, used Grow MedTech funding to carry out a market appraisal and identify the best routes to commercialisation.

They also received a grant from the Medical Research Council to carry out a clinical trial – currently underway at Addenbrookes Hospital and in York.

The ultimate aim is to create a handheld device that can be used easily by GPs or nurses, with patients simply walking across the room without the need for any specialist equipment. 

Making recovery fun 

Of course, it’s not only older people who benefit from rehabilitative and assistive technologies – many are developed for children too.  

Children in particular can struggle to maintain physiotherapy exercises when recovering from injury or disease. By their very nature, these are repetitive and even for adults can be pretty tedious.  

A team from Sheffield Hallam University have found a way to make such exercises more fun and encourage repetition by turning them into a virtual reality (VR) game

Using a Proof of Concept grant, the team, led by Ivan Phelan, has been working with patients and health professionals to develop a suite of VR games to support upper limb rehabilitation in children and adults, for use in the clinic and at home. 

The games can include climbing a tower or pulling an arrow from a quiver, putting it into a bow and shooting at a target. 

These are now being tested by patients both in the clinic, at Sheffield Children’s Hospital and Leeds Teaching Hospitals, and at home.

We’re also working with the team to develop a business plan and market assessment to identify potential industry collaborators to take the technology forward. 

Putting patients first 

A common thread for all these technologies is that they have developed their prototypes in a user-centred way, involving the patients right from the start. 

I’m a firm believer – and of course, it’s a central philosophy at Grow MedTech – that all technologies, even those that patients might never see, like a surgical scalpel, should involve patients in their development.

The reason is simple – it’s ultimately patients who will be affected once these technologies come into use. One big difference with rehabilitative and assistive technologies is that patients are usually the ones physically touching the technologies, not the clinicians. 

This makes it much easier for those developing the technologies, as patients are keener to be involved in projects where they can see an immediate connection for them. 

A good example of this is a project at the University of Huddersfield which is involving patients – children – at a really early stage. Dr Sohel Rana is an expert in materials science, working with composites that involve natural materials, such as cellulose or basalt. 

Although he usually works with the aeronautics, motor manufacturing and construction sectors, he’s now applying his expertise to look at prosthetics for children who have had lower limbs amputated.

Many prosthetics for children are just mini versions of those created for adults, but in fact, they need different properties.  Thanks to help from Grow MedTech, Dr Rana has teamed up with Devices4Dignity who already have a patient group. 

Together, they are working with children to find out what properties they like and want, in terms of strength, flexibility and weight, so Dr Rana can tailor a material to match. 

Rehabilitative and assistive technologies are an exciting field to work in, precisely because of the amazing impact they can have on patient’s lives.

And that transformation should also result in big changes to how healthcare can be delivered and how effective it can be, helping our hard-pressed NHS as well.