BLE Technology Tracks Safety with Walker Sensor

By Claire Swedberg

Healthcare organizations are rolling out a solution from WalkWise to wirelessly track the movements of individuals who use a walker, via a sensor attached to the front wheel.

Healthcare and elder-care facilities have begun deploying a new solution from technology startup WalkWise that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)-based connectivity as part of its new approach to tracking fitness and well-being. This battery-powered sensor system provides an alternative to wearable trackers, by monitoring the activities of individuals based on the movements of their walkers. The system tracks when people move their walker, how often and for how long, as well as if the walker tips, potentially indicating a fall.

The solution consists of the sensor, which attaches to a walker's wheel, as well as a cellular-based gateway to forward data to a cloud-based server, and an app to display information and send notifications to users. The product, also known as WalkWise, was first developed by founder Peter Chamberlain while he was a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to help caregivers or healthcare providers understand the health, safety and activity levels of those using walkers.

The solution is currently in use by eldercare organizations such as the National PACE Association (NPA), which employs BLE technology for fall prevention, health screening and safety monitoring of those using walkers and wheelchairs to aid their movement, according to Zsofi Zelenak, WalkWise's operations manager.

The solution includes a sensor that attaches to a walker's wheel.

The solution includes a sensor that attaches to a walker's wheel.

Technology for Detecting and Preventing Falls

Chamberlain's personal interest in elder safety was based on his concern for his own and his wife's grandparents. In one instance, his wife's grandmother fell because she wasn't using her walker, and she was unable to get herself up. Chamberlain's own grandmother also suffered a fall while alone in her home, and she had to crawl to the nightstand to call for help. Another grandmother, living with Alzheimer's disease in a senior living facility, required monitoring of her activities to ensure her safety. All three grandmothers used walkers to help with mobility.

Chamberlain envisioned a system that would monitor not the person but the walker. Data captured from the device, he speculated, could go to loved ones, physical therapists or healthcare providers to keep adults safe while they remain independent and at home. He built a prototype in MIT's MakerWorkshop in 2016, and the group participated in the Techstars accelerator program in 2019, which resulted in its first healthcare contract in 2020, and a pivot to value-based care. "The goal from the start," Zelenak says, "was to help seniors who used mobility aids, who tend to be at the highest risk of losing their independence."

The healthcare organizations that have adopted the technology have been using it for several purposes: to encourage individuals to use their walkers, thereby preventing falls, and to track behavior over time, to better understand health. The concept is that if a walker is not being used, the system can detect either that the individual is inactive, or that they are walking without it. Either scenario indicates a health or safety concern. When a walker is being used, the system captures data indicating how fast, how long and how often it is moving. And if the walker tips, the sensor identifies that event and issues an alert that a fall may have occurred.

How the System Works

WalkWise's device attaches to a walker's rear wheel via zip tie or dual locks and can run for nine months to a year on AAA batteries. The sensor has a built-in accelerometer that measures the wheel's rotations to identify how much the walker is moving. Its built-in BLE chip transmits that information, along with its unique identifier, to a gateway that then forwards the data to a server.

Peter Chamberlain

Peter Chamberlain

The result is that those physicians or caregivers can receive data regarding the movement of a walker assigned to a specific patient. If their movement raises concern, the care provider can address that problem. The gateway, known as The Node, receives BLE transmissions and uses its CAT-M1 LTE cellular service to transmit the information to the cloud. That data appears in the WalkWise application that system participants can download. Alternatively, they can simply view the data in the cloud. With The Node receiving and transmitting data, the system is fully independent from a smartphone or Internet connection.

Medical personnel, family members and other caregivers who use the app can receive status updates and notifications based on activities, as well as view details on a dashboard in real time. "We work directly with health professionals who have patients that use WalkWise," Zelenak states. Caregivers can set and receive safety notifications of interest, and they can download data from WalkWise for use in their own systems.

One end user is Northland PACE Senior Care Services, which provides care for high-risk seniors in its community, in some cases living independently. With WalkWise, care providers can screen for signs of illness or infection, which the company says reduces costs around short-term skilled nursing employment. If an individual's activity drops unexpectedly, for instance, that could indicate a health problem. With the technology in place, the organization can be alerted to a fall and deploy paramedics to the site, rather than waiting for individuals to call for help.

During physical therapy, the organization employs WalkWise data to encourage activity at home. Participants use a walker with the sensor attached, and therapists can view the amount of activity taking place, to ensure patients follow an exercise protocol. This data has led to functional improvements among those participating, the organization reports. WalkWise indicates that PACE Southeast Michigan, another region within the PACE program, identified a 43 percent reduction in falls during a six-month pilot involving 15 participants.

Often, WalkWise reports, the technology helped to ensure that an individual who had fallen could quickly receive the help they needed. The notification prompted managers to send a request for paramedics, who arrived onsite 30 minutes later. The system provides long-term well-being data. For example, decreased mobility could signal problems such as heart failure, depression or cognitive decline. The first device was launched in 2019. Since then, Zelenak says, the company has added the WalkWise Mini to its product line, in order to accommodate smaller walker sizes. "We've also got some very exciting new products in testing," she adds.

Interpreting Data for Health and Independence

Fall prevention remains a complex issue even when WalkWise is used, Zelenak reports. "The data we provide is open-ended," she says, "and allows for interpretation specific to each of our client's needs." In general, however, the sensor's presence on the walker empowers seniors by preserving their independence. Since the system sends safety notifications in the event of a fall, this helps it facilitate discussion about the prevention of future falls.

Zsofi Zelenak

Zsofi Zelenak

Finally, because the system monitors activity, those using the walkers are showing a greater incentive to stay active and mobile. "As a bonus," Zelenak states, "some people never lose their competitiveness, and those who spend time amongst other seniors using the same smart walker attachments love to compare results or even compete against each other in reaching their daily goals."

The company has been deliberate in its effort to build a solution that is non-wearable. "Wearables often come with additional tasks," Zelenak explains, "such as having to take it off at times, putting it back on every morning, and remembering to charge it. WalkWise was designed with its convenience and ease of use in mind. You attach it to your mobility aid and forget about it until you are reminded by the system to change the batteries."

The Node and the sensor device both use Nordic Semiconductor BLE chips, and The Node has a range of a typically sized home or apartment. "As our number-one focus," Zelenak states, "we currently work closely with home health providers across the country, as well as some senior living facilities." While the company works in partnerships with healthcare facilities of various sizes, she adds, it also provides the option for consumers to purchase WalkWise directly from its website. At present, WalkWise has contracts in 13 states throughout the United States.


Key Takeaways:

  • A BLE-enabled solution tracks the movement of an individual's walker, providing care providers with details about how that walker is being used.
  • As an alternative to a wearable fitness tracker, the system is designed to be easy for a walker's user to operate, since the sensor remains on the walker, without requiring a smartphone or Wi-Fi connection.