WalkSmart: how three friends are bringing the personalized data revolution to physical therapy

Healthy walking habits have repeatedly been shown to improve both physical and mental health-related quality of life. So when both of their grandmothers fell around the same time and were forced to rely on walking aids, best friends Peter Chamberlain and Nick MacKinnon knew they needed to do something. Serendipitously, the two University of Portland mechanical engineering students happened to be looking for something to create for their senior project.

“We wanted to do something to help them,” Chamberlain said. “That’s where we started working on assistive technologies.”

Inspired by their grandmothers’ impaired mobility and joined by their classmate Sean O’Rourke, Chamberlain and MacKinnon spent the next year designing and testing  AutoWalker, an automated walking aid for patients recovering from ambulatory injuries. Autowalker would allow patients to rebuild confidence in their walking ability while tracking their rehabilitation progress.

Their senior project was a success, and in the spring of 2014 the three graduated and went their separate ways– but the distance did not stop them from developing their new knowledge. They continued to work on assistive technologies, and in March 2016, Auto-Pilot Medical Technologies was born.

A Fitbit for your walker

While working on his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT, Chamberlain met with physical therapists and showed them the prototype for AutoWalker. While they were impressed by the product, they saw little use for it.

“It’s this cool thing with all these motors and sensors, but they didn’t need that,” Chamberlain said. “What they really wanted was the data from the device.”

Those conversations were the company’s first lesson in customer feedback and the inspiration for their latest project: WalkSmart.

WalkSmart is a three-piece system composed of a device that attaches to the walking aid, a central node that scans for nearby WalkSmart devices and uploads data to the Cloud, and an app that allows caretakers to view and analyze trends such as walking speed, walking distance, and walking frequency.

“It does functional health tracking,” Chamberlain said. “For physical therapists, walking health is just as important as any other vital signs because one of their most important outcomes in therapy is proving how people are functioning. In short, you could say it’s Fitbit for your walker.”

But according to Chamberlain, Fitbit and other wearable devices pose three limitations:  they rely on the user to wear them everyday, they must be charged on a daily or weekly basis, and they require the ability to manage an online interface. WalkSmart, on the other hand, holds a charge for years, remains on the walking aid at all times, and gathers the data for you into a single place.

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Once the data is in the Cloud, it is viewable by anyone, on any device, as long as they have the authorized password. The primary goal of WalkSmart is to make healthcare decisions more personalized, which, according to Chamberlain, will improve the  experience for everyone involved– patients, therapists, families, and insurance companies.

“When the therapist sees the data, they can have a glimpse into the person’s life and understand more deeply the things that are limiting them,” Chamberlain said.

For example, if an elderly patient is advised to use their walker for everyday motion but the data indicates that it is only being used two or three times a day, the therapist can see that their advice is not being taken. This data could serve as a starting point for what can be a very tough conversation; rather than simply saying ‘I do not think you are doing your exercises,’ a physical therapist could point to the data and say, ‘I can see you are not doing your exercises’ and find ways to motivate their patient.

The ability to monitor patient compliance will be particularly beneficial in outpatient therapy, Chamberlain said.

“When the people are living at home and they only come in once to three times a week if not less frequently, then the therapists basically have a window into their life that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said. “In a hospital or nursing home, the people themselves are a little bit more frequently observed because there’s always caregivers around. In the home, they aren’t.”

Having numerical evidence of patient progress will also assist in important conversations between physical therapists and insurance companies, such as when to discharge a patient.

“Right now, there’s a bit of a back and forth between the therapists who wants to keep the patients in therapy for as long as possible because they want them to reach the highest functional level, and the insurance companies who don’t want to pay for any more therapy than they have to,” Chamberlain said. “But if they can prove to the insurance company as physical therapists that the patient isnt recovering like they should or need more time to reach their capability, then they can make that decisions together and weigh the risks and benefits carefully.”

On the part of insurance companies, WalkSmart will be the next step in the personalized risk management revolution– just like putting sensors in cars to understand people’s driving habits and setting rates accordingly.

For children of elderly parents, being able to monitor progress offers peace of mind. For the patients themselves, it improves independence and overall well-being.

“If you have a stagnant life, most of the time you’re going to degrade mentally,” Chamberlain said. “What we can do to keep people walking, keep them active for as long as possible, is going to be good for them and good for everyone.”

Looking ahead

Auto-Pilot Medical Technologies currently has a fully-functioning alpha prototype of WalkSmart, which they hope to deploy in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes in the coming month. After receiving feedback from therapists they hope to tweak the product, expand their clinical studies, and eventually come up with a product ready for the market. They are also in the middle of a seed funding round, with the goal of raising $100,000. They are looking for investors and partners, and are always open to pairing with therapists and institutions.

And the three boys from the University of Portland don’t plan on stopping with Walksmart; they hope to expand their product to other walking aids, like canes, and implement additional sensor packages to gather even more useful information.

“The mantra moving forward is informing care decisions by gathering and displaying useful personalized data,” Chamberlain said. “That’s where the industry is moving– having care decisions being made on a very personal level using personal data, not just someone like you.”

Chamberlain will be presenting WalkSmart at 1 Million Cups on Wednesday, September 28th, at 9:15 a.m. at the Stage at Island Park.

Katie Beedy