Falls are an enormous threat to health and well-being in elderly people, and the possibility of a debilitating fall is an obstacle to autonomy and independence. Since many medical conditions that cause falls and many of the injuries related to falls are life-threatening, every second in the period between fall and the emergency room is vital. Constant monitoring of individuals at risk for falls is one practical way that mobile devices could be used to improve patient health.

A team at Florida State University is developing software on Android phones to help detect falls and shorten the time it takes to alert emergency services. Unlike other fall-detection technology, this app adds fall detection capability to one of the most commonly-owned devices – your phone.

In a world of apps that make our lives more fun and more efficient, this app (along with an iPhone sibling in the not-too-distant future) stands out as one that could actually save lives and improve peace of mind for independent seniors.

iFall (not to be confused with the iPhone game) is an application that runs on an Android device worn by the user.

The tri-axial accelerometer in Android phones allows iFall software to monitor the phone’s location, position, and movement. The software integrates information about user height, weight, and carrying position with continuously gathered data on phone movements into an algorithm that determines whether a fall has occurred.

When a possible fall is detected the application communicates first with the user by vibration, flashing LED/screen, and audio alerts. If the user does not respond (as would be expected in the case of a serious fall), communication is attempted with pre-designated contacts. Contacts are sent text message alerts that include the time of the event and GPS coordinates. Contacts can then communicate directly to the phone speaker of the person who fell. When communication by either of these methods fails, or a fall is confirmed, an emergency service is contacted promptly.

The makers of iFall have gone to painstaking length to eliminate false alarms (false-positives) that may occur when the phone is worn during physical activity, when driving, or even when doing general activities of daily living. By adjusting the algorithm and thresholds, the developers are able to maximize detection of real falls while minimizing detection of non-fall events. For a detailed description of how this app works, see their paper.

The technology was presented last year at the Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. iFall is in the testing stage of development and is not yet available. We contacted the development team who informed us that they plan to enter clinical testing to validate the app this summer, working with both young, healthy individuals as well as elderly, at-risk individuals.

While similar apps for the iPhone are also available, such as Fall Alert from Oberon Space, its clear that iFall will be undergoing the most rigorous validation prior to release. This testing demonstrates a greater level of credibility for iFall as a useful tool for patients and clinicians, a credibility that is often lacking in many iPhone apps that claim to benefit patients (Disclaimer: Fall Alert’s website was entirely in Spanish so its possible some testing occurred, though none is mentioned on its iTunes page).

iFall should be available late this summer. We look forward to its official release, and we are excited to see how patients and clinicians will use this technology.