SFU's Stephen Robinovitch went looking outside of the university lab
for hard evidence of how seniors fall
Serious spills are an unfortunately common and often devastating occurrence for seniors, but SFU’s Stephen Robinovitch and the Technology for Injury Prevention in Seniors (TIPS) team are working to generate new research and design ways to reduce the injuries caused by them.
Overarching goals of their work include the creation of built environments and wearable padding and sensor systems that promote safer mobility for older adults. Robinovitch is also calling for the prevention of injury from falls to be declared a public health priority. It costs the Canadian government over $6 billion per year to accommodate the such injuries, not to mention the related loss to seniors’ quality of life.
“I have dual appointments at SFU: in Engineering Science and in Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology which makes my lab highly multidisciplinary,” says Robinovitch. “You’ll find engineers, kinesiologists and health scientists working in collaboration with stakeholders to solve problems. This mix of different skill sets and perspectives improves our ability to identify innovative approaches and solutions.”
With the assistance of SFU’s longstanding partner, the Fraser Health Authority, Robinovitch, along with colleagues and students from TIPS have analyzed video footage from long-term care facilities to glean hard evidence of how falls occur—the real-life circumstances that literally get people tripped up. They also wanted to learn more about what the human body instinctively does, or fails to do, when a loss of balance occurs.
Findings from over the over 200 fall events TIPS analysed were published in Lancet (2013) and they overturned many common assumptions about how and why we fall. They also sparked the idea to develop computer-based algorithms to analyse human motion which could then be used in wearable sensors or video surveillance systems to automatically detect and alert care staff of fall events.
Another facet of the work is to see whether there are links between the findings and clinical data, such as whether certain diseases or medications make it more likely for a senior to suffer a fall. They are applying this knowledge to develop and evaluate novel preventive interventions, including compliant flooring and hip protectors that lessen the force of impact and reduce fall-related injuries. This work is being done in partnership with AGE-WELL, an SFU co-led national network for accelerating the development of technology-enabled solutions for the challenges of aging.
But falls occur outside of seniors facilities, too. The TIPS team first made headlines in 2011 when they showed how fall-related injuries to public transit passengers could be reduced by proper body positioning. And in 2014, Robinovitch was awarded a Discovery grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for a research project aimed at improving the design of hockey pads and boards to prevent head injuries in ice-hockey players. For these and other studies in the lab, researchers built a one-of-a-kind fall-inducing machine—the “Slipitron 2000”—to test how study-participants respond to losing their balance.
“As a university researcher, I strive to generate important new knowledge and to apply that knowledge to improving the lives of current and future generations. As we improve our ability to treat disease, reducing the burden of falls is becoming increasingly essential for maintaining the quality of life of seniors.”
Dr. Stephen Robinovitch is a professor and Canada Research Chair at SFU. For the past 22 years, his research has focused on the cause and prevention of falls and fall-related injuries in older adults. He currently leads a program in "Technology for Injury Prevention in Seniors" involving long-term care facilities who participate as real-life laboratories for capturing objective evidence of falls, and exploring the clinical effectiveness of hip protectors and compliant flooring. He also directs The Injury Prevention and Mobility Laboratory at SFU, which has unique facilities for studying falls and measuring the protective value of hip protectors. He currently serves on the Advisory Board for the Institute for Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis of the Canadian Institute of Health Research.
Q & A with Stephen Robinovitch
If you could sum up the value of university research and innovation in a word, what would it be?
While it’s tempting to go with “discovery,” I’ll instead go with “knowledge.” As a university researcher, I strive to generate important new knowledge, and to apply knowledge to improve the lives of current and future generations.
What motivates you as a researcher or innovator?
My primary motivators are my scientific curiosity, my need to be creative and productive, and the enjoyment I derive from mentoring students and trainees. I’m also competitive in the sense that, while I don’t spend much effort comparing myself to other researchers, I’m always comparing myself (and my research team) to last year in terms of productivity and innovation.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Collaboration in research and development is essential for identifying and understanding the needs of stakeholders, moving ideas from the lab to the real world, expanding the applications for your research results, and developing the resources necessary for important advances.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?
The current trend is for more engagement from university researchers in terms of working to solve the problems of industry. Another emerging trend is community-based research that addresses the social needs of stakeholders. While both are important, I think we’ll see a return to recognizing and promoting the value of universities as “think tanks” for the identification and investigation of important questions. The challenge for universities is to facilitate the balance between fostering discovery and the needs for implementation and uptake of results.
SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?
My hope is that, through an innovative and long-standing focus on community engagement, SFU will emerge as a world leader in developing new models of research and education to transform not only SFU but the wider academic community in terms of generating solutions to important social issues.