Wearable technology improves treatment opportunities for rural and remote patients

Published: 09 April 2018


A Melbourne student has taken strides towards bringing physiotherapists closer to their patients who live in rural and remote areas with the development of a pair of ‘smart socks’.

University of Melbourne PhD candidate Deepti Aggarwal has found a solution to the issues facing Australian physiotherapists who rely on video consultations to treat patients who live too far away to receive treatment in person.

Her ‘smart socks’ are essentially a piece of wearable technology that provides physiotherapists real-time information on a patient’s lower body movements including weight distribution, foot orientation and range of movement.

“Physiotherapy is all about movement,” Ms Aggarwal said.

“To assess patients’ recovery, physiotherapists must be able to closely observe the subtle differences in their movements.”

The Melbourne School of Engineering student said lower limb movements are too subtle to understand completely over video, which leads to less specific treatment and a reluctance of physios to try out new exercises with patients.

The technology, called SoPhy, is a pair of socks embedded with three sensors that capture information while a patient undergoes a video consultation wherein they perform the exercises that would be typical in a face-to-face session.

The socks are then coupled with a web-interface that relays the information using foot sketches.

During a trial of SoPhy at the Royal Children’s Hospital, physiotherapists were more confident in their assessments as a result of the movement related information that would otherwise have been invisible in a video consultation without the socks.

The patients’ experience was also improved, as they received real-time feedback on little changes in their movements that were otherwise difficult to understand.

“They got a better understanding of what they should be doing instead of what they were doing, which made the therapy goals simpler and more achievable for them,” Ms Aggarwal said.

Royal Children’s Hospital physiotherapist Mark Bradford said SoPhy enhanced physiotherapist-patient communication.

“SoPhy makes my intervention more accurate and specific,” Mr Bradford said.

“It gives me more clarity about what’s happening with the patient right now and helps me to decide the best treatment – showing patients exactly what to do, and how.”

Ms Aggarwal has called on wearable technology companies to consider mass producing the socks, which cost $300 to make, thereby reducing the cost.

My hope is that someone takes this system and takes it to the market," she said.

"There are many more dimensions we can explore - it can be beneficial for foot injuries, even for elderly people.”