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A 20-year adventure in rehab robotics

Tech pioneer Hocoma has long been pushing the boundaries of innovation in rehab. Now marking its 20th anniversary, it plans to step up its ability to drive better patient outcomes, as Deborah Johnson reports.

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Back in 2000, the world was a very different place, particularly in terms of technology.

Many of the high-tech innovations we now accept as standard were not yet launched and healthcare remained one of the most traditional markets around.

Yet into this climate, Hocoma launched the prototype of its pioneering Lokomat, a robotic medical device which provides repetitive and highly physiological gait training to patients, enabling even some of the most impaired to learn to walk again.

While it has gone on to become one of the world’s leading robotic medical devices, in 2000, it was a significant and controversial disruption into a long- established and relatively low-tech rehab scene.

Clemens Muller, global head of clinical and scientific affairs at Hocoma, says: “Twenty years ago, gait rehabilitation was completely different.

Therapists had to physically move patients’ legs – a manual task that can be very tiring and requires huge effort, particularly when you are doing it many times a day.”

Gery Colombo, a trained electrical engineer with an interest in neural rehabilitation, founded Hocoma alongside Peter Hostettler, an economist, and Matthias Jörg, a biomedical engineer.

“The founders realised the need for a change to this way of doing things and to find a better solution,” says Clemens.

“They wanted to establish a venture which could use their specialist knowledge and go in a particular direction, with a purpose and intention.

“The goal was to change rehab as it was known. This was absolutely new; in fact so new and innovative that the world of healthcare rehabilitation wasn’t really ready for it.

“This was a challenging phase but one in which Hocoma needed to be really entrepreneurial with a very clear vision and focus and to keep on going.

“It did take a little while until it was accepted and it was a long journey for the founders.”

Despite the initial challenges of launching such a high- tech product, over the past two decades, the Lokomat has become one of the most widely used gait rehabilitation devices in the world.

It has helped to set an industry standard in rehab products for people with brain injury, stroke and other neurological disorders.

Hocoma recently installed its 1,000th Lokomat.

But it has also built on the success of its flagship product by launching an array of other devices.

Among its product portfolio is the Erigo, which assists with patient mobilisation in the earliest stages of rehabilitation; its Armeo range, which supports the recovery of arm and hand function; and its Valedo products that targets back pain.

The business is headquartered in Switzerland but works in 27 countries worldwide – and believes it is changing the lives of people in clinics across the globe.

Clemens says: “I think there are three drivers behind innovation in healthcare – social aspect, which includes demographic changes and the shift from using products which are based on evidence rather than just experience; the technology changes in the world as a whole; and the clinical changes, which are moving on quickly and have changed dramatically to encompass robotics and exploit the previously unused potential of this way of therapy.

“These drivers have changed, and continue to change, the landscape of the world in which we work. Hocoma has always been at the front pushing the boundaries and helping to change the resistance there was at the beginning of our journey.

“When you went to a rehab conference 15 or 20 years ago, there was only one tech provider there, which was us.

“But if you compare that to now, there can be anything up to 20 companies at an event, including start-ups that are working in technology fields like robotics or sensor-based equipment, offering products for inpatients and outpatients, for acute needs. So there is a huge selection now available.

“There is also the demand from the market to integrate technology. The key for us has always been how to integrate this technology into a routine of therapy to use it to its full potential.

“It is about not only being engineering-driven but understanding how to use that to make a bridge to the rehab world and understand the link to the human world – bringing the know-how and capability and opening that up for the needs of patients.

“As a market, we do need to do more homework in that area.

“Lots of clinics already have integrated the technology they are using very successfully, and with our products it makes us proud to see how the patient is being supported to the highest level.

“I have seen this happening in many clinics around the world and it gives me goosebumps to see how happy patients are with how it is working for them. It also makes a huge difference to the work and demands placed on the therapist, and that is something that also makes us so proud.”

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Hocoma’s ambition for the future is to continue changing lives and reaching out to millions more around the world.

A strategic move in achieving this came in 2017 when Hocoma joined its now-parent company DIH – bringing it under the same roof as other rehab technology developers including Motek.

“We have always been a pioneer since we were established so we will continue this with new and better solutions to benefit people’s lives.

“Our focus is on bringing solutions which are innovative, high quality, effective and efficient.

“The future for us will of course be affected by the healthcare market in general. We are seeing a rapid demographic change around the world and this will mean a change in the healthcare approach.

“There will be a search for solutions.

“With the huge move towards digitalisation through the Industrial Revolution 4.0, there will be a greater role played by artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

We will continue to develop as a business so we can continue to be at the front of what is happening.

“Traditionally, we have come up with a new innovation every year, which could be a new product launch, or else new features or a new version of an existing product, but we are always developing what we have to make it the best it can be.

“We are always learning by doing and have a network of research and academic partners all over the world and this enables us to come up with great products which deliver solutions.

“We are planning heavily in our development team and are continuing to develop our launch plan and product road map.

“We hope the global coronavirus outbreak and the shutdown we are seeing around the world does not affect our plans too much in the short-term, but we will have to see how that develops and adapt to that as we need to.”

As a business which has helped to change traditional practices and approaches in rehab globally, one area in which Hocoma would like to push for further change is in widening patient access to its own products, and other high-tech solutions.

“At the moment, it is not a given that all patients and all clinics will have access to our products. Of course technology has its price, but we need to address that at some point.

“We need to work with clinics and insurance companies to try and find a solution here and to shape the future of rehabilitation.

“It is important to find optimal solutions which increase access to technology, to improve the quality of rehab, while looking at the cost effectiveness of such products.

“Over the next five to 10 years, there are going to be more stroke, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury patients who are needing innovative solutions and our goal is to develop more solutions which will benefit them and the therapists.

“When money and costs are involved it can often be a long journey, but we believe if all stakeholders got together to find a way of best dealing with this, together we could deliver the best rehab to patients, and this is something we would like to be involved in delivering.”

www.hocoma.com

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Repeated head injuries linked to depression – study

Repeated head impacts may be associated with depression symptoms and worse cognitive function later in life, new research suggests.

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It’s well established that a traumatic brain injury (TBI) can cause memory and cognitive problems, as well as depression, but now, researchers have looked at the consequences of repetitive head impacts.

They found that people exposed to repetitive head impacts may be more likely to experience difficulties with cognitive functioning and depression years later.

The researchers analysed data from the Brain health Registry on 13,000 adults, five per cent of whom reported having had repetitive head impacts through contact sports, abuse or military service.

They were asked about depressive symptoms and completed cognitive tests.

The paper, by researchers at Boston University and the University of California, San Francisco, reveals that participants who’d had repetitive head impacts and TBI reported greater depression symptoms than those who hadn’t.

Repetitive head injuries were a stronger predictor of depression than TBI, and those who had a history of repetitive head impacts and TBI with loss of consciousness reported the most depressive symptoms.

“The findings underscore that repetitive hits to the head, such as those from contact sport participation or physical abuse, might be associated with later-life symptoms of depression.

“It should be made clear that this association is likely to be dependent on the dose or duration of repetitive head impacts and this information was not available for this study,” said Michael Alosco, associate professor of neurology at BU School of Medicine (BUSM).

Those who’d experienced repetitive head impacts or TBI also performed worse in some of the cognitive tests.

“It should be noted that not all people with a history of repetitive hits to the head will develop later-life problems with cognitive functioning and depression,” says Study author Robert Stern, professor of neurology, neurosurgery and anatomy & neurobiology at BUSM.

“However, results from this study provide further evidence that exposure to repetitive head impacts, such as through the routine play of tackle football, plays an important role in the development in these later-life cognitive and emotional problems.”

The researchers point out, however, that one limitation of the research is that researchers didn’t have data on the extent of participants’ injuries.

Last year, BUSM researchers found that longer someone was exposed to tackle football, the higher the risk of developing the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

For every year of exposure to the sport, footballers had a 30 per cent increased chance of having the disease.

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City dwellers “more likely to die in hospital” after stroke – US study

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Compared to those living in urban areas, stroke patients treated at rural hospitals were one third less likely to undergo a procedure to remove a blood clot that caused the stroke and were more likely to die of stroke before leaving the hospital.

Researchers examined national data on almost 800,000 adults hospitalised after a stroke between 2012 and 2017.

In their paper, published in the American Stroke Association’s Stroke journal, the researchers warn that this urban-rural divide may be getting worse. This gap, the paper states, could be caused by the slower take-up of newer treatments and technologies, and because rural hospitals are less well-resourced and have poorer access to specialist care. Rural hospitals may also be more likely to lack specialised clinical support, such as dedicated stroke units.

Other causes for poorer stroke care could be a lack of clinical expertise in urban areas, due to difficulties attracting and retaining experienced staff, and poorer access to emergency services and longer responses to emergency calls due to distance.

“The lack of access to specialists is often a limiting factor in adequate care for rural stroke patients, and in this case, that could mean a neurologist to guide the initial care, an interventional neurologist or radiologist to do a procedure, or having a neurosurgeon available for backup in case of any complications,” said Gmerice Hammond, author of the study and a cardiology fellow at Washington University School of Medicine.

“Clinicians need to work to improve access to high-quality stroke care for individuals in rural areas. That means partnerships between hospitals for rapid transfer, as well as telehealth when appropriate. And clinical leaders and policymakers should prioritize improving access, care and outcomes for stroke in rural communities.”

The study had some limitations, including a lack of data on the severity of patients’ strokes, or factors that would determine whether a patient received advanced therapies, sich as the size of the clot and where it is located.

Karen Joynt Maddox, senior author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, calls the differences in care, and the lack of improvement over the five-year period, ‘striking’.

“Future studies using more detailed clinical data will be important to follow up on our findings and to determine why patients in rural areas aren’t receiving advanced therapies. Is it because their stroke severity is different? Or because delays in getting to the hospital meant they weren’t eligible by the time they arrived?

“Those questions can’t be answered with administrative data, but they’re very important to look into so that we can develop effective solutions.”

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One charity’s challenging move to online group sessions

Since lockdown began in March, many people recovering from brain injuries have had to adapt to remote sessions with health workers.

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But it’s not just outpatients that have seen a change. One neuropsychologist in York is trying to sustain momentum with her support group, but navigating the new online world with patients has brought its challenges.

Just before lockdown, Diana Toseland, consultant clinical neuropsychologist, was celebrating. Her charity, Café Neuro York, became officially registered. Café Neuro is a social support network that allows people with long term neurological conditions in York to learn new skills, help others and learning to be mindful, after they’re discharged from health services.

Group members were meeting face-to-face for morning and evening meetings, and once a month on Thursday evenings there was an interactive presentation for members to enjoy. When lockdown began, Toseland wanted to continue her twice-weekly sessions online.

But adjusting hasn’t been easy – Toseland had built up a loyal user base, but sessions were very much based offline. Adjusting hasn’t been easy.

“People need this in York. People with a neurological condition need ongoing support,” Toseland says. “People with brain injuries found it helpful to come along to meet people without having to explain – they can just be who they are. It’s about what people can do, not about their condition or disability.

Since lockdown, Toseland has been struggling to know how to support people.

“I’ve got up to speed with Zoom. This week we had six people call in, but their difficulties are quite profound and they’re finding it hard to get onto Zoom. Some call in late because they forget or find it difficult, others call in with help from families.”

Toseland has found there are many technical difficulties to overcome before the sessions can begin.

“You need so many things – good internet connection, distraction-free environment, working microphones and speakers.

“One woman managed to set it up herself, her career before the injury was IT, but then she didn’t have sound. Then she tried headphones, which worked, but then she took them off and couldn’t get the microphone on the computer to work without the headphones – she was the most successful in that meeting.

“Another has poor signal so she has to sit under a tree in her garden, which means she can only do it when the weather’s good.”

Once the call is up and running, Toseland says some members find it difficult to navigate the conversation, which has entirely different unspoken social rules than offline conversations.

“They’ve found it difficult because you can’t have two people having a conversation, it’s got to be one person at a time, which requires intense concentration. People can’t sustain that level of attention long enough to fully participate in the conversation.

“Some go quiet, it leaves people with headaches, it’s fraught with disaster. They might dominate the conversation and not pick up on cues; one finds it’s too much stimulation, so she closes her eyes.”

But Toseland hopes to continue the groups, as when it does work, it works well.

“On the other hand, for those who have joined it, they’ve used it as a bit of a lifeline.”

But Toseland is looking forward to getting meetings back into the real world. She’s been runnin Café Neuro for over a year and a half, and she’s seen more progress in some members than they ever made coming to her clinical practice.

“It’s made a difference in ways I couldn’t have predicted, and an impact wider and quicker than I could’ve possibly hoped for,” she says.

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