SFU's Stephen Robinovitch went looking outside of the university lab
for hard evidence of how seniors fall
Eight years ago, SFU researcher Stephen Robinovitch went looking outside of his Injury Prevention and Mobility Laboratory for hard evidence of how falls occur—the real-life circumstances or objects that literally trip people up. He also wanted to learn more about what the human body instinctively does, or fails to do, when a loss of balance occurs.
So with the assistance of SFU’s longstanding partner, the Fraser Health Authority, Robinovitch and a team of colleagues and students from the Technology for Injury Prevention in Seniors (TIPS) program began to analyze video footage taken in long-term care facilities. Their findings from over 200 fall events, published in the Lancet and CMA, overturned many common assumptions of how and why we fall. It also sparked the idea to develop computer-based algorithms that analyze human motion, for application in wearable sensors or video surveillance systems that automatically detect and alert care staff of fall events. As well, educational videos from the footage are being used to evaluate issues of technology adoption by residents, families, care workers, health professionals and governments.
"I have dual appointments at SFU in Engineering Science, and Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology, so my lab is highly multidisciplinary. Engineers, kinesiologists, and health scientists work collaboratively with stakeholders to solve problems. The mix of different skill sets and perspectives improves our ability to identify innovative approaches and solutions," says Robinovitch.
Since serious spills are an unfortunately common occurrence in senior care homes, Robinovitch and the TIPS team have been postulating and designing ways to lessen the chance of injury from them. Part of this 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.
It’s not only in senior care facilities where falls occur. The TIPS team first made headlines in 2011, when they showed that 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 (NSERC) 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.
Robinovitch hopes that this work will result in designs for built environments and wearable sensor systems that promote “safe mobility” for older adults. He is also calling for injury prevention from falling to be declared a public health priority, in part because it costs the government over $6 billion per year to accommodate the injured–not to mention the loss to the injured person's quality of life.
“As a university researcher, I strive to generate important new knowledge, and to apply knowledge to improve the lives of current and future generations. As we improve our ability to treat disease, reducing the burden of falls is 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. As a teacher, I strive to impart knowledge and problem-solving skills to students, that have personal and societal benefits.
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 in 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 (range of expertise and infrastructure) 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 trend right now is for increasing engagement of university researchers in 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 identification and investigation of important questions. The challenge for universities is to facilitate the balance between fostering discovery in research 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, that transform not only SFU but the wider academic community in generating solutions to important social issues.