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Enabling Nursing Care Facility Monitoring with IoT Sensor Technology

Easing Caregivers’ Workload: Introducing Sheet Sensors

Currently, the labor shortage at nursing facilities is becoming more serious against the backdrop of  declining birthrates and an aging population. The  decline in the working-age population (15 to 64 years old) will further accelerate from 2025 on according to estimates by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW). The ratio of job openings within care related fields remains at a higher level than for other jobs. In other words, there is already a labor shortage in nursing care facilities.

IoT is expected to be one solution to this issue. A social welfare corporation with seven nursing care welfare facilities is taking various measures. These include proactively introducing IoT equipment to focus efforts on reducing the workload of its employees. Let's now take a look at examples of IoT being introduced into nursing care facilities with a focus on sensor technology.

This company placed sheet sensors under patients’ beds in its intensive-care homes where elderly people with a relatively high level of nursing care needs (e.g. dementia) live. These sensors detect body motion (e.g. turning over in bed, breathing, and heartbeat) in real time. If the facility understands the sleeping patterns of its users with these sensors and then centrally manages the data via wireless LAN, employees do not need to patrol the living areas either during the day or at night, greatly reducing their workload. In addition, if employees can change patients’ diapers at night by ascertaining when they are awake, it does not interfere with the rest of the elderly who tend to sleep more lightly.

A company involved in medical and nursing care beds sells these sheet sensors together with the monitoring sensors that inform employees when patients are up and out of their beds. A small transmitter is built into the sheets, and while they do not measure the heartbeat of the users, it is possible to improve the monitoring efficiency by relaying information back to nursing stations.

There are 20 to 30 types of IoT equipment installed in this nursing facility (including nursing care robots). The company has established a think tank to independently evaluate this equipment and research and verify the impact. It calculated that the time for by monitoring operations (e.g. making rounds ) was approximately 15% of all nursing care work. It projects the work time to be reduced to less than half that by using sensors. The facility will be able to reallocate that time to other tasks requiring more hands-on activity (e.g. meals and toilet assistance).

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Measuring Slight Body Movements with Sensing Technology

Sensing technology is becoming more indispensable in nursing care facilities. For instance, the Non-contact Monitoring Sensor developed by a medical equipment startup in Kyoto uses a high-frequency-band laser of 79 GHz and has the ability to distinguish between two objects in close proximity. The sensor has a measurement range of up to seven meters and automatically detects and tracks target persons. It is possible to detect every corner of even multi-bed rooms by installing one of these sensors in strategic locations. It can also discern the movements of multiple people, making it possible to monitor whether caregivers are  providing proper nursing care.

The most significant feature of this sensor technology is that it is possible to measure slight movements on the body surface (e.g. body motion due to breathing) with a high degree of accuracy. If installed in a crib, it is useful in detecting irregularities in babies (e.g. arrested breathing  due to sleeping face down). Moreover, high-precision measurements are being taken with vital data (e.g. heartbeat and respiration) with a view to utilizing this in measurements in the medical field. The plan is to obtain certification as a controlled medical device that needs to be certified by a third-party organization before the end of the year. A national university in Kansai and a major electronics trading company have been working together to start selling this product for research purposes. A major electronics manufacturer has purchased multiple units to develop its own products. It expects to also potentially leverage this technology in  home appliances (e.g. home security, smart homes and healthcare).

Monitoring devices using sensor technology are also being introduced overseas. For example, a nursing care facility in the United States measures biological information with non-contact vibration sensors placed under mattresses which is then displayed on a monitor. This is reducing the burden of caregivers to measure the heartbeat and other vital signs. In the United Kingdom, plugs (for electrical outlets) with sensors are providing data on elderly people using home appliances.

Unlike cameras, monitoring systems using sensors are less likely to incite feelings of psychological avoidance by users and also take privacy into consideration. Using IoT to focus on care that can only be provided by humans will also lead to an improvement in the quality of nursing care and reduce employee workload.

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