Proposed platform, app aim to improve life quality in Parkinson’s

A close-up view of a person's wrist shows the individual setting a digital timer on a smartwatch.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology (FIT) in Germany are collaborating on a project with the aim of creating a digital platform and application that, used with a wearable device, can track the course of Parkinson’s disease and potentially improve patients’ quality of life.

Called ParkProReakt and involving 10 partners, the project is slated to run through next year and is coordinated by a Philipps University of Marburg neurology team. About 400,000 people in Germany are living with Parkinson’s, according to a Fraunhofer FIT press release, and for many, “getting to the doctor’s office is a challenge,” meaning that “new symptoms often go unrecognized by patients and their loved ones.”

The partners aim to develop a web platform and smartphone app, dubbed Active PD, that pairs with an Apple Watch via Bluetooth, facilitating communication between Parkinson’s patients and their healthcare professionals. Data collected through the app would be transmitted to the platform and available to patients’ doctors.

The overarching aim is to improve patient care and mitigate the burden on caregivers, with both, or either, using the tool to help assess changes that occur throughout the course of the progressive neurodegenerative disease. The platform’s goal is to foster communication between patients and doctors, enable regular checkups, and permit patients to receive self-help support, all designed to improve quality of life in Parkinson’s. The app will allow certain patient values to be tracked and transmitted directly to the patient’s physician. Rather than awaiting new information, doctors can react to the smallest clinical deviations.

“We hope our digital solution will give providers a better window on patients’ day-to-day lives and have a positive impact on their quality of life,” said Daniel Wolferts, a scientist at Fraunhofer FIT.

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Because each patient journey is different, regular monitoring in Parkinson’s disease can allow for quicker interventions. However, such monitoring, and routine patient examinations, can be difficult to facilitate, especially for those in rural areas. Consequently, according to the researchers, patients may only be seen by their treatment teams every six months or at even longer intervals.

The Active PD concept is undergoing validation testing in a clinical study with 170 patients over six months. In the trial, the intervention group will use the digital tool, while a control group will receive conventional treatment with no technological device. The patients are asked to complete standardized Parkinson’s-related tests twice weekly using the app and watch, which records their movements through sensors.

The tests focus on patient motor skills and overall condition, helping doctors and other healthcare team members to better assess their Parkinson’ symptoms and respond quickly. For example, patients are asked to perform finger exercises in front of the mobile phone’s camera, tapping their thumb and index finger together as quickly as they can several times consecutively. During the test, an image recognition feature detects the two digits and measures the distance between them. An additional exercise has the patient opening and closing a fist rapidly several times.

“Parkinson’s patients have a hard time making these movements quickly and fluidly due to the disease,” Wolferts said.

The study also calls for the employment of sensors to determine whether patients can hold one of their hands still for a certain period without trembling, which can be a challenge in Parkinson’s.

To allow emotional support to be provided as needed, participants must answer questions about their overall wellbeing. Escalating color codes of green, yellow, and red are used to alert the physician if a patient’s condition dramatically worsens. The app may also be used to report patient falls and other incidents.

Wolferts and his team are tasked with designing a user-friendly website and app, currently in the prototype stage.

How do we visualize the data in both applications in a user-friendly way for all the different groups concerned? … How can we make it so patients can undergo the necessary testing and examinations right on their phone without facing too big a motor challenge? Those are the kinds of questions we’re working on.

“How do we design an app for Parkinson’s patients, and what kind of information do these people want to get? How do we visualize the data in both applications in a user-friendly way for all the different groups concerned, and how do we meet the requirements most effectively? How can we make it so patients can undergo the necessary testing and examinations right on their phone without facing too big a motor challenge? Those are the kinds of questions we’re working on,” Wolferts said.

The project’s end goal is to create a cross-sector care model that’s “proactive, demand-driven, [and] follows a holistic approach,” connecting patients and caregivers with their healthcare team, including any specialists. All would be able to communicate together via the digital platform.

“If we’re successful, we might also ultimately be able to expand the concept to cover other neurological diseases,” Wolferts said.

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