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Could AT&T Prevent Falls Among the Elderly?

Posted by: Damian Joseph on May 14, 2009

AT&T may be best known today for the iPhone, but the telecom company is up to some fascinating research that could expand its wireless business. AT&T is experimenting with telehealth devices and a communications network that might reduce falls in the home, a major cause of death among the elderly. Roughly speaking one of three people over 65 fall each year. Almost a third of these accidents require medical treatment, and 10% result in serious injury or death. Managed-care environments, like nursing homes, experience about a fall a day among residents.

AT&T is testing shoe insoles with built-in sensors that take gait, stride, and pace measurements as patients walk. The measurements are beamed wirelessly to a modem-like gateway box that's connected to a health-care network via the Internet. AT&T's scientists are hoping that by catching changes in a patient's walking pattern, the software can alert doctors to a problem before they take a tumble.

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The devices are currently being tested in labs at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. Scientists at AT&T say that so far, the technology is working well. The project is being headed up by Robert Miller, executive director of AT&T's communications-technology research department, who worked on the team that developed the company's Wi-Fi technology. The "telesoles," as they call them, use ZigBee wireless. It's a network technology akin to Bluetooth, but with a much stronger signal that requires less power for transmission, which means the batteries last longer.

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AT&T's financial interest isn't in the devices themselves, but the network they'll run on. AT&T, of course, is a communications company. It makes money from customers using the network, not by selling physical products. Recall the company's partnership with Apple: AT&T isn't actually selling the iPhone, just the network it runs on. The company is hoping its new technology can be integrated with its U-verse network as part of a package deal with phone, cable, and the Internet--a sort of one-stop home communications shop.

Other companies are testing completely different devices on the network at the Texas Tech trials, too. The researchers won’t name names, but they say the devices are taking measurements from different parts of the body and all of them are running on AT&T's network simultaneously. These could be devices that measure pulse, temperature, blood sugar, blood pressure, or respiration.

Now, don’t strap on your jet pack to head down the pharmacy to pick a pair of shoe insoles just yet. These are experimental devices. Also, tons of data will have to be collected, analyzed, tested before patterns begin to emerge. Being able to obtain these measurements, though, is pretty good "step" in that direction.

Reader Comments


May 19, 2009 4:53 PM

I'd be very interested in knowing if these would help someone with diabetic periphial neuropathy. With the numbness, there is not a balance problem, but, many times falls happen because they do not feel the bottom and sides of the feet.

Bob Kerns

May 19, 2009 5:23 PM

Maybr this could help with other nerv issue like spinal stenosis which is know to cause weekness in legs. Many time i have fallen because I did not realize that the weakness had kept me from lifting my leg and foot in a normal gate and it resulted in draging my foot instead cause me to trip on the slightest difference of terrain, like a rubberized painted floor which can keep ones foot from sliding to make up the difference in the drag, hence the foot sticks instead of sliding and down I go.

Maria G.

May 19, 2009 5:24 PM

I have an 11 year old that is falling frequently due to weakness with his iliotibial band caused by anatomical abnormalities. It would be interesting to know if this could be used for a medical problem like his. Maybe it could be used to alert school staff if a fall should occur at school when he is walking alone.


May 19, 2009 6:04 PM

We work with many elderly at the Hahn st Garage. This could save a ton in missed productivity...

Williams, John

May 19, 2009 6:19 PM

Woowzers thats sooo cooool like!


May 19, 2009 6:21 PM

What a wonderful idea!!! My husband is recovering from 2 brain anurysms and his balance is on and off. What a great way to test and see if this could answer many questions that we have. With brain injuries they never know what causes something unless they can have results on how, when and why and no way of proving anything at this point. FANTASTIC!!! I would love for the chance for any trials of anything that could help!!


May 22, 2009 9:24 PM

All of this is great, assuming that the customer is willing to pay for DSL or Uverse. As with most elderly family members, they are on a fixed income and may not be able to afford such luxuries or even want them.


September 8, 2009 7:58 PM

This device could help collecting data for future analysis, but I don't think it will help to prevent people from falling in the short-term. I wonder how many people will be willing to enroll and pay a monthly fee for the sake of science?

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