Smarter homes for people out of hospital or with a disability

19 Mar 2024

Smarter homes for people out of hospital or with a disability featured image

Bedroom, kitchen and bathroom… of course, everyone needs those, but who needs a smarter home?  

The answer is the tens of thousands of Australians for whom returning  home from hospital after a significant injury or illness.

People leaving hospital, or people with a disability at Fiona Stanley Hospital can now visit a simulated smart home with new smart tech to try. Tim McLennan, a clinical Rehabilitation Engineer at Fiona Stanley Hospital has set up a simulated home environment within the hospital.

The simulated apartment has everything designed to make life easier transitioning home after leaving hospital – voice activated, smart switches and more.

Tim said: “In this space, people can experience a showcase of contemporary assistive technology devices to help anyone with a disability to discover which technology might be helpful for them in order to improve and maximise their independence and control after an illness or injury and as early in their journey as possible,”

“People can try it out, see what these technologies are like in real time in a real environment, and see what might be helpful for them in their own home, supported by allied health professionals,”

For people returning from hospital, it can be a huge challenge if they’re not prepared for a living environment of high-tech devices that most people take for granted.  

All the more frustrating if they were once capable of cooking, cleaning and having a fully functional life, including mastery of the technology.   

A simulated home environment is important to help a range of modern assisted technologies that prepare often wheelchair-dependent people to interface with today’s home devices and demands.  

A Churchill Fellow in 2016, WA-based Timothy (Tim) McLennan has what might be called skin in the game: at the age of 21 he experienced spinal cord injury that resulted in incomplete paraplegia. Later, he would go on to research the many challenges faced by people with physical disability, including the difficulties of negotiating a society lacking in proper support for people of diverse ages and capabilities, whether living alone or with their families. 

‘My Fellowship recommendations were to ensure National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants have access to impartial, expert assistive tech assessment, advice and opportunities, particularly for provision of custom tech where required,’ Tim recalls. 

A key to the proposed project’s success was to increase hospital-university collaboration efforts in his state to improve the quality of assistive tech design.  

‘I identified the need to support the development of more holistic mechanisms, such as Assistive Technology Innovation Hubs, to ensure participants not only have access to experience a greater range of assistive tech options, but that they can also access impartial advice from Allied Health professionals and Rehabilitation Engineers or Technologists, before having to find and select private NDIS service providers.’  

Again, it seems surprising that such procedures were not already in place. 

In 2022, Tim McLennan became a recipient of a Churchill Trust Fellow Impact Funding Grant, an initiative aimed at enhancing the outcomes of identified Churchill Fellowships. His expressed aim was to create a demonstration smart-home for patients at Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA so they learn, explore and experience assistive tech before returning home and going back into the community.  

Tim says he has been using the learnings from his Fellowship and the Impact Funding grant to advise WA Health patients and staff on options as part of his role as a Rehabilitation Engineer (Electronics) within the Department.  

He has also presented insights from his research to the Australian Assistive Technology peak body ARATA and facilitated a workshop and presented to the board of Technology for Ageing & Disability WA.  

‘I was subsequently invited to serve as a board member and have helped to establish best practice assistive technology services through NDIS providers and assisted in filling market gaps where there are unmet patient needs.’  

Of particular importance is the collaboration he has forged between the Fiona Stanley & Royal Perth Hospitals and Curtin University’s School of Engineering. The aim is promoting and supporting Health and Assistive Technology-related final year projects by undergraduate students.  

‘I have worked with the State Rehabilitation Service (at Fiona Stanley Hospital) that a Demonstration Environment – essentially a mock/mini smart-home – would be of immense benefit to patients to be able to learn, explore and personally experience Assistive Technology and smart home devices’, Tim says. 

‘Getting access to expert information and appropriate technology will enable people to regain greater independence and improve transitions for patients from discharge, back home and into the community.’  

Tim’s goal has been to create a simulated home environment with a wide range of contemporary Assistive Technology and smart-home options that can be demonstrated and personally experienced by users with a disability.  

Tim has been authorised to use an under-utilised area within the hospital (a mock apartment used for discharge planning and practice) to install smart-home devices and related tech for patients to trial and experience various equipment options.  

Tim adds, ‘Having this facility will better inform patients of what is possible, and what works best for them, to maximise their independence and control after an illness or injury.  

‘It will allow people to have an environment (unbiased from marketing forces) to better understand their options, needs and preferences before having to make decisions on what equipment they wish to purchase and have installed in their homes. Ideally, before being discharged and having to work it out for themselves, at home, without these potential supports or expert advice.’ 

Another benefit will be to allow the testing of new products and assistive technology that comes to the market, ensuring it does not interrupt the current functionality or personalised alternative access methods for users of existing AT.  

Tim says Curtin University’s Occupational Therapy department is keen to have their students undertake user survey/evaluation of the improvements and benefits this service will provide for both local participants and, more broadly when adopted, for the cost burden of the Australian health care system.  

 ‘Fiona Stanley Hospital is also providing the space and equipment that is already installed (such as electrically adjustable bed and basic kitchen/lounge/bedroom items). The hospital will provide any patient handout materials and signage required, as well as staff labour to set up and maintain equipment, and develop education materials and program details,’ Tim says. 

With the support provided by his initial Churchill Fellowship and later the Impact Funding, Tim has steered the project – his smart home mock apartment – towards becoming an essential feature of major Australian health facilities, modelling the challenging, often high-tech, home settings that so many people encounter when they return to face the demands of the outside world. 

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