Machines give rehab patients a leg-up, reminders and more

A man sits in an electric care bed that separates and converts into a wheelchair at the Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology.
A man sits in an electric care bed that separates and converts into a wheelchair at the Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Patients recovering from stroke need to train their muscles to work again and the journey back to health for the more than 6,000 people who suffer a stroke each year can be long and tedious.

Several projects being worked on in Changi General Hospital's (CGH) Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology (Chart) are to help such patients rehabilitate.

Japanese company Yaskawa has a leg rehabilitation robot that provides passive exercise to recovering patients. It exercises the hip, knee and ankle joints and the leg muscles.

Today, a therapist moves the leg for the patient for about 15 minutes, and it can be very tiring especially with big patients, said Ms Elaine Gomez, head of rehabilitative services at CGH.

But she wants more from the machine than what it now does - which is to move the leg forward, backward and up, but along the same plane.

She wants it to rotate the leg and to move it sideways as well, as this is what a therapist has to do. If it does the job, such machines might become standard in community hospitals, nursing homes and day rehabilitation centres.

Saint Andrew's Community Hospital had asked for equipment that can monitor if exercises are done correctly by patients, without the need for a therapist staying throughout with the patient.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) obliged with a pole that patients need to place on a rack.

It records if the pole is held horizontally or slants in favour of the weaker arm.

It lights up when patients do it properly, and signals when it is placed wrongly.

This way, the therapist needs only to check the data to know how the patient is doing.

Other technologies being tested include a bed from Panasonic that can be split in half and turned into a wheelchair, so patients do not need to be lifted from the bed to a wheelchair. However, it is not waterproof, so the patient can't shower in it.

Then there is Nico, a little robot that can extract data, such as blood pressure or temperature, from wearable devices on patients and send the data to a doctor's computer.

It can do a lot more, said Professor Chen I-Ming of the Nanyang Technological University, which has five professors and 15 researchers working on five projects with CGH.

Nico can be used in the wards to keep an eye on patients. It can sense when a patient tries to get out of bed and can tell them to call a nurse rather than stagger on their own to the toilet.

It can also be used at home to remind patients with early dementia to take their medicine, carry out simple conversation, or entertain them with song and dance. To suit local needs, it can also be programmed to speak in different languages or dialects.

The prototype costs about $2,000.

Salma Khalik

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2015, with the headline 'Machines give rehab patients a leg-up, reminders and more'. Print Edition | Subscribe