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Using telerehabilitation to get people back on the road

CMU faculty create simulator tool targeting patients’ needs

Contact: Dan Digmann

​​​​​Brain injury, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases and natural aging often affect driving skills, and for those who have lost their ability to drive, getting to and from rehabilitation appointments can be a daunting task.

To tackle this issue, a new tool designed by researchers at Central Michigan University will bring targeted rehabilitation to patients in their homes.

"People who live in rural areas or depend on others for transportation may not have the option of going into a clinic," said Rick Backs, director of CMU's Driving Evaluation, Education and Research Center. "Our system eliminates this issue by bringing rehabilitation right to their homes." 

Backs and DEER Center technology manager Nick Cassavaugh developed the portable simulation tool, which is very much like a specialized video game. The cost-effective tool will enable health care professionals to test a patient's ability to drive and customize rehabilitation programs for the patient to complete at home.

"We call it 'telerehabilitation' because the patients can take the small-scale simulator home and do their training there," said Backs. "This essentially means clinics don't have to spend $80,000 on large simulators, and they can enable the treatment to happen remotely."

Backs, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist, is certain patients will benefit greatly from the use of this tool.

 "Many patients are more willing to comply with a program if they can do it from home and it isn't troublesome," said Backs. "This can be very motivating for someone who wants to get his or her driving abilities back."

Putting it to work

The tool, called the Driving Assessment and Training Suite, is very unique because it can be targeted to specific skill deficits of the patients.

"Many other clinic-based simulator systems provide driving scenarios for training and rehabilitation, but they are commercial-based concepts that aren't training any particular skill," said Backs.

The system uses three components:

  • Assessment. Health care professionals assess a patient's visual cognitive function in their clinics and use the results to create scenarios tailored to the patient's problem areas.
  • Training. The system is sent home with the patient so they can practice the scenarios. It communicates via the Web to send data back and forth between the patient's home and the clinic.
  • Configuration. Based on the simulator data received remotely from the patient, clinicians adjust the difficulty of tasks as needed to help with the progression of rehabilitation.

Next steps

CMU faculty have been collaborating with Cattolica University in Milan, Italy, on further development of the system. The two universities are working on a joint study, which will involve data collection in Italy on younger, middle-aged and older drivers.

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