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Broadband is Life-Changing: Burlington VT's Telecare for Rural Health Project

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 30 2009

I'm at the annual Freedom-to-Connect conference, where the over-riding topic this year seems to be "connectivity as the killer app." While we could debate that phrase, here's a great example of a project that shows, beautifully, the power and potential of universal, home-based, connectivity.

The Telecare for Rural Health Project, based in Burlington, Vermont (no link, sorry!), has starting providing a two-way interactive video and audio over broadband exercise class for seniors who have fallen or have a fear of falling. It's a three times a week class that runs for one hour per class, for 15 weeks. The project is a joint undertaking with the University of Vermont’s Department of Rehabilitation and Movement Science and is funded by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health.

Lawrence Keyes, a consultant working on the project, tells us that "We know that exercise is helpful for senior patients, but we can't get to them. And we know that Tai Chi helps keep seniors healthy, increases their well-being and balance." So, they're bringing a Tai Chi class directly into people's homes. He notes that, "Pre- and post-testing suggests that the tele-class is equal to or more effective than a live class." Why? Keyes thinks it's because it's more convenient to take part. "One 93-year-old woman," he tells us, "who is normally confined to a wheel-chair, joins with the help of her grandson."

The project works using a box, called the DocBox, that attaches to the patient's home TV set and runs on cable or DSL. The instructor sees a "Hollywood Squares" grid showing up to 12 patients, each standing in their own homes, following along with the instructions. They run a phone help-line for participants, in case they have problems during the class. The sound plays through the participant's TV, and the DocBox comes with a built-in mike that the teacher can turn on and off, with the picture showing the person talking. When that happens, you can see and hear users saying hi to each other.

Here's a pretty crappy photo showing what the instructor sees as she leads the exercise class. That's Keyes in the foreground.

This is now a research project but they are talking to many additional potential partners, including Visiting Nurse Association. If you ever run into someone who doubts how universal high-speed internet access can change people's lives, just tell them about this.

Bonus link: David Weinberger's live-blog post of the first session of the day.

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