Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the world’s second most common neurodegenerative condition after Alzheimer’s disease with an estimated 10 million people worldwide suffering from it. Its prevalence is forecast to double over in the next 25 years.
The Problem We Aim to Solve
Common symptoms of PD are loss of balance and falling which tend to increase over time. Over 60% of Parkinson’s sufferers report falls. 39% of sufferers report recurrent falls with an average of 21 falls per year. The primary cause for falls in PD is freezing due to reduced dopamine levels in the brain. Freezing and balance problems are most likely to occur during the middle and advance stages of the disease.
A Parkinson’s sufferer experiences freezing as if her feet were glued to the ground, unable to move in any direction. Freezing related falls can happen anytime, anywhere without a warning and are often associated with significant injury, hospitalisation and disability.
Walk to Beat conservatively estimates the annual fall related medical cost at over 1,300 AUD per faller (Parkinson’s Disease Society of Victoria (Parkinson’s Victoria). 2020. ln addition, reduced mobility due to Parkinson’s also carries a significant emotional cost due to decreased confidence and independence.
Current approaches for preventing Parkinson’s related freezing and falls include walking sticks or frames with attached lasers providing optical cues, counting down numbers to break out of a freeze, listening to music and walking with another person. However, they suffer from lack of convenience, efficacy and discreteness
Walk to Beat’s research points to a strong unmet need for a smart, affordable and discrete walking aid which can recognize a users’ walking pattern and can dynamically respond with haptic cues to overcome freezing episodes.
The Smart Stick offers the following advantages over the current alternatives:
- State sensitive – only activates in the event of freezing
- Highly effective haptic vibrational feedback (can be modified for specific conditions, such as on step feed back for stroke survivors encouraging them to walk better)
- Discretely fits into user’s lifestyle – looks and behaves like a standard walking stick
- Ease of use with low cognitive load – operates fully automatic, does not require continuous attention to cues
- Learning, connected system – records historical gait data, identifies patterns and trends, makes predictions about the condition
- Active/ rest times and ‘relying on the stick’ factor can help analyse condition progression
We are doing our research on market size for other target markets (such as stroke survivors, orthopaedic rehab, generic geriatric deterioration). As the additional service offering of data can have a huge demand in the research industry and be attractive for the clinicians as well.
Particularly for Parkinson’s sufferers the learning connected system will give clinicians an overview of gait activity of patient’s day-to-day life (outside the clinical environment). This may assist in the treatment as the report can be reviewed at monthly physic visits where they can see their ‘on’ ‘off’ times for medication, active/ rest times, number of FOG episodes, duration of FOG episodes etc
We are willing to collaborate and require further input from the health care professionals to tell us what other might be useful to them in the report.
Iterative R&D with lead users
The Smart Stick was developed iteratively in close consultation with a 25-strong lead user group of PD sufferers. This collaboration lead to improved handle ergonomics and enabled the fine tuning of vibrational response triggering and intensity. In qualitative feedback collected, users reported increased confidence and motivation to walk. Preliminary observations also suggested that the Smart Stick is effective at significantly reducing the duration of freezing episodes, thus, materially reducing the risk of falls.
Longitudinal functionality and safety test
In August 2019 Walk to Beat sold 8 alpha prototype units of its Smart Stick to lead users in the UK at a discounted price of 130 GBP in order to test basic functionality and safety. Feedback was collected via phone interviews and emails over a period of over 1 month. Aside from a software bug that has since been fixed, the Smart Stick functioned as intended and was reported safe. Findings from earlier research that vibrational feedback is triggered correctly and that the stick encourages users to be more active were confirmed.