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Smart technology in the home effective for supporting mental health care, study finds

A research team from Lawson Health Research Institute has announced promising results from a one-of-a-kind demonstration study that evaluated the use of smart technologies in the home for people with severe mental illness.   

“Our Smart Homes solution is for people who are having difficulty managing their everyday life and need a high level of care to maintain community living,” says Dr. Cheryl Forchuk, Assistant Scientific Director at Lawson and project lead for Smart Home Community Model Phase.

“We have strong initial evidence showing that technology and applications embedded in the lived environment are safe, secure and appropriate for use in health care.” 

After prototyping this approach within a hospital setting through St. Joseph’s Health Care London, the research team outfitted affordable housing units at Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Elgin-Middlesex and London and Middlesex Community Housing (LMCH) with smart home technology.  

The team presented the full study results during a virtual event. 

There were 13 participants as part of this project phase who had different living situations such as individual apartments, group homes or family homes. Anxiety, mood and psychotic disorders were the most common mental health diagnoses, with many also suffering from chronic pain that make the activities of daily life difficult.  

Dr. Cheryl Forchuk“More and more, smart technologies like phone applications or virtual care are being used for mental health care. A smart home solution like the one we have tested could be considered a higher dose of technology, offered to clients with higher needs. The right dose for one may not work for another – the technological solutions used should vary depending on the individual,” explains Dr. Forchuk.  

Each study participant selected from a wide range of tools that would best meet their individual needs, with all but one participant selecting more than one tool. Devices such as smartphones and touch-screen monitors connect with applications to provide video-conferencing, questionnaires, and prompts and reminders based on the person’s care plan. They also had access to automated medication dispensers and smart health monitoring devices for tracking heart rate, activity and sleep. 

“All of the data is viewable by both the client and health care provider, allowing for more seamless care and identification of issues earlier on,” adds Dr. Forchuk.  

The study found that visits to a health or social service provider and the emergency department decreased, as did home visits from a provider. Telephone appointments increased and communication between the client and provider were enhanced. Almost 80 per cent of the participants felt that the technologies improved their health care overall.  

Higher levels of community integration and a greater sense of independence were also reported, including a better ability to remain connected with friends and family during the pandemic. When medication dispensers were used, no medication doses were missed. Participants felt they were better able to track their own health and more motivated to lead healthier lives. 

“The compliment of smart technology in our Supportive Independent Living Program has proven to improve the quality of life of participants by reducing use of emergency services and fostering learning opportunities for independent living skills to create a good quality of life,” says Nedrita Shemshedini, Manager of Supportive Independent Living at CMHA Elgin-Middlesex. “In a large-scale rollout, this model could improve wellbeing and empower persons to better manage their care.”  

The research team hopes this work will help inform the integration of smart technology more fully into mental health care delivery. Laura Pearson, Executive Director at Ontario Peer Development Initiative, urges that “there is a need for key policies to be addressed and changed in order to support funding and access for technology at a system level for the purpose of mental health care.”  

The community model phase of the Smart Homes project was generously funded by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).