VNA's talking technology wirelessly monitors distant patients


Big Brother was painted as an evil protagonist in the novel 1984, granting society no privacy with its omnipresence. But today, technology that monitors our daily activity can actually save lives. The VNA (Visiting Nurse Association) of Care New England doesn’t use cameras and television screens to monitor patients’ daily progress. Instead they use a technology called telemonitoring, which allows them to remotely keep tabs on their patients’ health.

The system, which centers around a touch screen roughly the size of a book, is equipped with a scale and blood pressure cuff. The small system also talks with the patient and guides them through a series of questions, tips and instructions. Any information the patient inputs is wirelessly transmitted to the VNA, where someone on staff has access to the data 24 hours a day.

“We get the results within 30 seconds,” said Linda Zabbo, R.N., B.S., the program manager at the VNA. Zabbo explained the data is sent to a website that the VNA can access at any time. “Patients can use this in the morning, or at any time they are not feeling well.”

The system greets the user and speaks to them in order to prevent possible screen read errors by patients with poor eye sight. Every day, patients hear the friendly voice of the machine say “good morning.” It then instructs them to take their blood pressure and step on the scale. Then it asks them a series of questions about how the patient feels, what they’ve been eating, and when they’ve been active.

If there are concerns or red flags raised by the answers a patient gives, the machine instructs them to change their habits, or a VNA staff member will call the patient directly. A nurse from the VNA may also be dispatched.

“It monitors minor problems and major problems are prevented by early intervention,” said Suzanne Gilstein, a member of the VNA of Care New England’s board.

The machine also asks true and false questions in order to allow the patient to learn more about their health.

“It focuses on teaching and positive reinforcement,” said Zabbo.

“Good job,” says the machine when the correct answer is chosen.

Zabbo said the machine is most commonly used for people who have been hospitalized for congestive heart failure or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Patients can use the system for a few weeks or many months depending on their needs.

Currently, the VNA has 33 patients statewide that are using this technology to monitor their health and recovery, but the VNA hopes to expand their clientele base by spreading the word to nursing homes and physicians around the state. Over the course of the year, the VNA projects to serve roughly 600 patients. The system is provided to the patient free or charge, but the system and monitoring provided by the VNA add up to $300 per month per patient.

Gilstein, who hopes to promote and improve upon the program, made a donation to what is now known as the The Suzanne and Alan Gilstein Telemonitoring Program. Gilstein became a board member of the VNA in 2008 and the vice chair in 2009.

“It’s been my pleasure to serve on the board of such an excellent organization,” she said.

Gilstein’s brother-in-law used the telemonitoring system after recovering from a hospital stay, and she said it deepened her passion for the organization and the technology.

On Friday, Gilstein was honored with a luncheon at the VNA, but she said the festivities were unnecessary.

“It felt so good and so right to do it,” she said of her gift to the organization.

“As more and more healthcare is moving away from the acute care setting back into the community, quality, cost-effective use of technology is more important than ever,” said Nancy Roberts, President and CEO of the VNA of Care New England, in a statement. “We are most grateful at Mrs. Gilstein has so generously recognized this.”

Gilstein hopes her gift will help spread awareness of the telemonitoring technology and promote healthier lifestyles for those in recovery.

“It prevents re-hospitalization,” she said. “It maintains people at home. I hope it expands throughout the state. I hope it helps to keep people home for longer period of time.”

Those interested in learning more about the technology or acquiring it for in-home use can contact Linda Zabbo at the VNA of Care New England at 737-6050 ext. 1361.


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