Mobile digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa have extended their reach from being used for weather forecasts and setting reminders to improving independence and the quality of life for people who are living with progressive neurological conditions like Motor Neuron Disease (MND).
Occupational therapists at Metro South Health have been increasingly assessing patients and their environments to minimise the impact of MND on their everyday life. This led to the Queensland-based health provider encouraging its patients to use mobile digital assistants daily.
“We use technology however we can to help patients maintain their independence,” Metro South Health Chief Executive Dr Stephen Ayre told HITNA.
According to Dr Ayre, the rise of affordable gadgets such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home has resulted in assistive technology fast becoming a mainstream household item for people with MND.
This is because they experience debilitating muscle weakness leading to paralysis and this technology helps them to continue living at home and carry out their everyday activities.
“Just a few short years ago, mainstream assistive technologies were not available. Patients had to spend thousands of dollars on equipment, such as environmental control units, from specialised providers,” he said.
“Now, they can spend just a few hundred dollars at department stores for a device that is portable and connects with many different features of their home. They may not have the same range of functions as a disability-specific device, however the price point has made this technology more accessible.”
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Dr Ayre said the potential for assistive technology is huge as without it, some patients would not even be able to live at home with their families.
For example, Metro South Health has helped Brisbane Bayside resident with MND, Barry Webb, set up assistive technology in his home, moving him away from the confines of an institution.
“Barry uses it for everything – TV, air con, lights, music – anything that is Bluetooth enabled. Our house does not feel like a hospital; it makes Barry feel and appear as normal as he can,” Webb’s wife, Janelle Webb, said.
Dr Ayre also identified the importance of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for such technology as previously, low cost items were out-of-pocket purchases. However, now, they can be claimed if there is funding for consumables on their plan.
“Prior to the NDIS rollout, subsidies for assistive technology were means tested for people under 65 in Queensland. If they did not receive a Centrelink pension, they could not access any subsidies. For many people under 65, this meant no financial assistance at all because they had a working partner, income protection insurance or some assets,” he said.
“With the introduction of the NDIS, patients can now receive funding for low cost assistive technology, as part of their NDIS plan.”
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Dr Ayre also highlighted the potential for mobile digital assistants, saying that the future possibilities for assistive technology are endless.
“You can now control and use devices such as computers with just the electrical activity of your muscle. So, even when patients lose the ability to move their hands, they can ‘think’ of moving their hand, and that electrical activity is enough to type an email or turn on the television,” he said.
“Big technology companies such as Microsoft are also prioritising accessibility to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. A hackathon project in 2014 has led to a Windows 10 feature called Eye Control, which enables anyone to operate an on-screen mouse, keyboard or text-to-speech experience using only their eyes.
“Both patients and clinicians are constantly challenging the status quo, and the only real limitation is waiting for technology to gain popularity. It’s exciting to imagine what the future holds in supporting our patients,” he added.