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Chip Checkups and Embedded Beds: RFID and Home Monitoring

Based in part on the web posting “RFID chips watch Grandma brush teeth”, on
Edited Article and Commentary by Dr. Don Rose, Writer, Life Alert


Life Alert is recognized across the country for its leadership role in the development of PERS (Personal Emergency Response Systems). This company established the field, and is still the industry leader today. But what will the future hold for home monitoring of the elderly? Perhaps one answer lies in the subtitle of the posting this article is based on: “The Era of Sentient Things”. An intriguing trend many futurists foresee is that devices considered “dead” or “inanimate” today will be enhanced with some degree of “smarts” in the years ahead. Such “sentient” or “live” objects would then be capable of useful activities, such as sensing, collating and communicating data; this can help monitor vital signs and/or activity patterns of seniors in their homes – helping to save lives in the process. Some thoughts and developments on this front are discussed below. -Dr. Don Rose



Radio-frequency ID (RFID) chips are being used to monitor everything from supermarket inventory and automobile production lines to casino chips and terrorists. Recently, there has been interest in using RFID in the home. The New Scientist reported on Intel’s development of RFID networks that enable families and health caretakers to remotely monitor elderly people in their homes.

RFID Applications for Monitoring Seniors at Home

Tiny computer chips, which emit unique radio-frequency IDs, could be added to toothbrushes, chairs and even toilet seats to monitor the elderly in their own homes. Data gathered from the RFID chips would reassure family and caregivers that an elderly person was maintaining proper care - for example, taking their medication – and in stable health. Unusual data patterns would provide an early warning that something was wrong.

A group of Intel researchers demonstrated the technology to US government officials in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago. The event aimed to show how embedded wireless chips could help tackle the care problems created by the rapidly rising number of senior citizens. "This technology could enable people to age in [their homes] with greater dignity, safety and independence," says Eric Dishman, director of Intel's Proactive Health program.

Using chips to make “dumb” objects “smart” may seem radical, but it has already begun. Many intelligent monitoring applications would seem to be possible with RFID technology. For example, beds could be embedded with chips to determine whether anything unusual may be happening – any data that differs from one’s normal patterns. For instance, if an embedded bed-chip (or network of chips) indicated that a senior was out of bed for more than, say, two to five minutes, and he or she rarely does that at night, that might send a red flag to the central monitoring station, requesting them to check in with that senior. (It may just be a trip to the bathroom, or it may be a trip or fall related to a heart attack or stroke.) Another data-collecting device could serve as the deciding factor; a news item in RFID Journal points out that “[a]n RFID-enabled heart-rate monitor could send a warning message when the user is in cardiac distress”. If the heart data indicated a medical problem or emergency was occurring, help could then be sent.

Another application: checkup by chip. Inserting RFID tags on the inside of clothing or on wristbands could relay vital data to doctors or other medical practitioners, even in a distant location. One could get remote “chip checkups”, perhaps even automatically, at a frequency determined by one’s doctor. These “virtual housecalls” would ensure good health is being maintained between full “live” physical examinations, and could also provide valuable backup data to show how a patient’s vital signs are evolving over time.

The Privacy Debate

The potentially lifesaving applications outlined above may, some argue, carry too high a price: the loss of (some) privacy.  These two conflicting goals - the desire to access real-time home or bodily data to help save lives vs. the need to preserve privacy - are sure to lead to interesting discussions and battles in the years ahead.

To decide on the optimal balance between the two goals, it is important to maintain a proper perspective, weigh the likely scenarios, and compare upsides and downsides carefully. For example, the New Scientist article mentions Intel researcher Brad Needham’s compelling argument that RFID applications "could mean [the] difference between being able to stay in your own house or moving to a nursing home. Would you rather have a chip on your toilet seat or a person in the bathroom with you?" Good point. In other words, what is a bigger invasion of privacy than having to leave your home and lifelong memories, in order to live in a place with strangers and rules you don’t have control over and a helper you don’t know who is always there with you, 24 hours a day?

Closing Thoughts

We mentioned that Eric Dishman of Intel said their technology, once deployed, could let older folks age at home “with greater dignity, safety and independence”. It is interesting to note that Life Alert’s technology has been doing just that for years. RFID holds great promise, but if you don’t want to wait for RFID chips to become ubiquitous in household objects (which may take a few years), the service Life Alert provides now lets seniors live much longer in their own homes.

In fact, the average Life Alert member enjoys independent home living for an extra six years – and according to ACNielsen Research, 87% of members said the protection provided by Life Alert is a “main or important factor” in their decision to keep living at home, rather than going to a nursing home. From New York to Florida to California, seniors nationwide are using Life Alert’s monitoring system to ensure their protection while living home alone. The company is now saving a life every 47 minutes, on average. 

It’s truly tomorrow’s technology, today.

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