Using the power of technology to age better and live well

More than 70 academics, across 17 departments and all faculties at the University of Sheffield, are working together as part of an innovative research team that is empowering people to live independently and be able to self-manage their conditions through user-friendly technology that they have had a key role in helping to design.

Mark Hawley

The Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH) brings healthcare scientists, engineers, psychologists, computer scientists, architects, and social scientists together in a creative hub that is changing lives for the better.

“Our goal is to help older people, people with disabilities and people with long-term health conditions to help themselves through the use of carefully designed and relevant technology,” says Professor Mark Hawley, Director of CATCH and an Honorary Consultant Clinical Scientist at Barnsley Hospital.

“I started up a service for people with severe physical disabilities in the NHS, providing them with technology to help them to be independent,” Professor Hawley said. “What we did ranged from things like communication aids, such as the one that Professor Stephen Hawking uses, through to devices to help people control the home. If you have a severe disability you can’t turn the TV or a light on, you can’t get up to the front door, so we provide, through the NHS, the types of technology that would allow people to do that.”

From providing a range of services to the people of Barnsley, the initiative has grown to the point where NHS England now commissions it to provide support to people across the whole of Yorkshire and Humber. “But I always felt that we were missing out on the some of the technologies that we really needed,” he said. “Which is why I started working with the University of Sheffield to develop new types of technology and eventually did so much research that I decided to move to academia rather than stay in the NHS.

The idea of CATCH is to harness the skills of different parts of the University and bring them together to help improve the lives of people with disabilities, older people, and those who have long-term conditions. Our aim is to help people live independently in their own homes and communities wherever possible.

Professor Mark Hawley

“We are now developing and testing a range of assistive technologies. One such development is helping people with neurological disorders who have lost the ability to speak clearly. We are working on a computer programme that uses speech recognition technology tailored to an individual, it understands what is being said when they try to speak and interprets this before speaking out a clearer version. The product is well developed, runs on an iPad, and we are trying to get it commercialised.”

For Professor Hawley the route to getting technology out to people is through the marketplace. “That is why it is important for us to work with companies who might manufacture the product and then sell it on to the NHS from where it is provided to patients for free. Much of what we are doing is software development for use on smartphones, tablets and wearable devices,” he said.

Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Catalyst Fund, CATCH works with a number of private sector partners to develop these technologies. “What we specialise in is working with people who are eventually going to use these technologies so they can shape and influence the design of it. That way you get a product which is far more useable by them and is tailored to their needs as opposed to something that the technologist thinks is a great idea.”

The group is also interested in changing unhealthy and unhelpful behaviours and works with a number of psychologists to help in this role.

“Whether it is to improve the gait in a stroke survivor, or to help someone improve their diet, embedding sound psychological research and principles in our technology is very important.”

It is a measure of the success of Professor Hawley and his team that Sheffield is to host the prestigious European Conference on Assistive Technology in 2017. The event, previously hosted in Florence and Maastricht, is expected to attract up to 500 delegates from a range of disciplines, as well as health and social care professionals and the healthcare industry.

CATCH research and projects

International conference comes to Sheffield