Smart building concept: The future of occ-health?

The latest technology in computerized sensory equipment may one day lead to smart buildings that can detect hazards and accidents, says a health informatics expert. "We are currently working with smart home technology involving an environment wired with sensors, video monitoring, and so on, that allows people to stay at home and receive health services and maintain their quality of life," says George Demiris, PhD, assistant professor and director of graduate studies for health informatics programs at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia.

Currently, he explains, his team is studying the elderly, using sensors to prevent falls, enhance medication compliance, and interact with people at remote sites. "The technology is there," Demiris notes. "Based on that model, we see an impact not just for the frail elderly and home care, but for the concept of smart buildings."

When people think of smart homes or smart buildings, they visualize the ability to automatically turn on lights, adjust temperatures, make coffee, and so on, but the technology can do much more, he says. "You can utilize video conferencing equipment, sensors, cameras and detectors to prevent falling and other accidents." For example, Demiris’ team collaborated with the computer science and engineering departments at the university to develop a sensor mat that detects when a person has fallen. "It might also, for example, detect a broom on the floor as well as a human body near the broom, and trigger an alarm," he explains.

Privacy concerns are addressed by having cameras show real images in the building, but only anonymized images of people. "You do not see Mr. Smith reading the paper, but the figure representing Mr. Smith can be recognized as doing certain activities."

The team currently is testing two strategies for preventing falls. One involves brighter lights in hallways, aided by cameras and sensors to detect objects in an individual’s path. "If a hallway sensor detects, say, a cat or a dog, the lights would automatically turn on," says Demiris. "In an office building, an alarm could be sounded as notification if something is present that is not part of the normal pattern."

This technology does not have to be built into an entire office building, Demiris notes. "It could be just the part of the building occupied by a specific company," he explains. "Probably the model would involve the employer absorbing the cost."

[For more information, contact:

• George Demiris, PhD, Health Management and Informatics Department, University of Missouri School of Medicine, 324 Clark Hall, Columbia, MO 65211. Telephone: (573) 882-5772.]