Enhanced Technology Empowers Veterans - VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System
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Enhanced Technology Empowers Veterans

Technology Empowering Disabled Veterans

The Advanced Environmental Controls innovation empowers Veterans with spinal cord injuries with tools to enable them to have better control over their surroundings and improve their quality of life.

By Cassandra Flowers, Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center
Monday, December 5, 2016

Veterans with Severe Disabilities Are Empowered with Technology

Imagine being able to call for a nurse, adjust your bed, manage lighting, open a door, make a phone or video call, use social media and control the television using only your eyes or by puffing on a straw. These tasks may seem simple but for a Veteran with a severe disability, these everyday tasks may be nearly impossible without assistance.

When Fran McClellan, Rehab Program Manager for Spinal Cord Injury at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center  learned about a Veterans Health Administration Innovation called the Advanced Environmental Controls (AEC) unit, she knew she had to investigate further. She learned that the AEC would enable injured Veterans to perform many important tasks independently, and that it could be obtained through the VHA Innovation Program.

The VHA Innovation Program worked with McClellan to provide and install 59 AEC units at the Cleveland VAMC on January 25. Since then, this new technology has given back independence to countless injured Veterans at the Cleveland VAMC.

What Is the Advanced Environmental Controls Unit?

The Cleveland VA Medical Centers, along with other VA medical centers with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Centers, was already using a variety of hospital-grade Environmental Control Units (ECUs) to give injured or disabled Veterans some control over their environment. However, the Cleveland SCI Center recognized that there was a gap in the market for one unit which combined multiple inputs (e.g., voice control, eye tracking, augmented communications, etc.)

The Advanced Environmental Controls innovation closed this gap by providing a solution which integrates multiple existing ECU functions into one comprehensive hospital product. It was designed specifically for Veterans with a wide variety of needs and disabilities to enable them to perform everyday tasks.

“Prior to receiving funding for the AEC units from the VHA Innovation Program, we had to piece several different technologies together, which wasn’t very successful in providing independence to our Veterans. Now, our patients have a lot more access and control of their environments,” McClellan said.

The Result and Benefits for Veterans

The AEC uses a variety of advanced technologies, including voice activation, touch screen, sip-and-puff straws, head-tracking, eye-pupil tracking and augmented communication to enable Veterans with limited mobility to control a tablet device held in place near them by a wall arm.
Ionica Mittelbrun is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Professional  at the Cleveland VAMC and regularly works with patients with severe disabilities.

“Veterans can control their lights, bed, and television, make phone calls, enjoy the web and, most importantly, activate the call button for a nurse. Any task someone can do on a computer or tablet, our patients can do on the AEC,” Mittelbrun said.

MIttelbrun has witnessed the power of the AEC for enhancing patient’s quality of life. He shared one example of a 40-year-old Veteran who was non-functional in his upper extremities. The patient uses the AEC at home and controls his surroundings with his voice and the sip-and-puff straw. Each time Mittelbrun visits the patient, the patient expresses how much he appreciates the ability to go online, socialize, make phone calls and be self-functioning.

“The AEC offers patients a new sense of independence and connection that wasn’t available before. It really opened up the world for this population,” Mittelbrun said.

What is the VHA Innovation Program?

The VHA Innovation Program solicits ideas from VA employees and industry professionals to enhance health care and services for Veterans. The program holds employee competitions each year to identify and select ideas from every corner of the nation, capturing the most promising innovations to address both emerging and long-standing issues that impact Veterans.

The AEC unit was one of the ideas that won the employee competition in 2011. The idea for the AEC unit was submitted by Sheena House, Chief of the Biomedical Engineering Project and Chief of Engineering Service, and Cathlene Wall, Biomedical Equipment Support Specialist, of the Memphis VA Medical Center.

House and Wall worked with a vendor AutonoME to manufacture and pilot the units at the Memphis VA Medical Center. The pilot was so successful that VHA Innovation Program provided further funding for 12 additional VA medical facilities to receive the units, including the Cleveland VA Medical Center.

Learn More
To learn more about the VHA Innovation Porgram, resources, and download program eBook Quarterly Portfolio, please visit our site.


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