App promises to improve pain management in dementia patients

AI for health: Helping health-care practitioners see pain more clearly

Katie Willis - 26 May 2020

University of Alberta computing scientists are developing an app to aid health-care staff to assess and manage pain in patients suffering from dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. 

“The challenge with understanding pain in patients with dementia is that the expressions of pain in these individuals are often mistaken for psychiatric problems,” said Eleni Stroulia, professor in the Department of Computing Science and co-lead on the project. “So we asked, how can we use technology to better understand the pain of people with dementia?” 

Along with Stroulia, the project is led by Thomas Hadjistavropoulos at the University of Regina as part of AGE-WELL, one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence.

The app will serve to digitize a pen-and-paper observational checklist that past research has shown helps health-care workers such as nurses when assessing pain in their patients suffering from dementia. 

“Our work is to develop an application for nurses to use as well as a back-end repository that stores and manages this data safely,” explained Stroulia, who co-leads an AGE-WELL research theme on Technology for Maintaining Good Mental and Cognitive Health. “This new research demonstrates the promising results from our initial trial.” 

The researchers are now working to build an app that can be adopted more widely. On a micro scale, the app will allow health-care workers to see how pain and pain management techniques are working, or not working, on an individual level, informing patient-care decision making. On a macro scale, widespread use of the tool may have the capacity to improve the quality and efficacy of care that patients with dementia receive. 

“When we have this kind of data, we can build models to understand the impact of different interventions,” said Stroulia. “This is what can change policy and care in the long-term—evidence-based policy that changes the state of how we practice medicine.” 

The paper, “Behavioral pain assessment implementation in long-term care using a tablet app: Case series and quasi-experimental design,” was published in JMIR Mhealth Uhealth (doi: 10.2196/17108).

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