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Walton Centre physios joined 'hackathon' to pave way for creation of software to aid stroke rehab

Getting to grips with VERA, an initiative that won financial backing from the Stroke Association

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A pilot study gets underway this week to investigate the potential of a digital stroke rehabilitation tool called the VERA, which was developed with help from physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals at The Walton Centre NHS Trust near Liverpool.

The VERA (short for Virtual Engagement Rehabilitation Assistant) is a bespoke digital tool being fine-tuned by The Walton Centre and Citrus Suite, a software company. The research underpinning the initiative is funded by The Stroke Association and MedCity and is being led by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Physiotherapist's pride

We have been using lots of techniques and interventions within complex rehabilitation to aid this process previously but to be able to take it to the next level, bring everything together in one place and utilise bespoke technology is something I am very proud to be part of [Jo Haworth, principal physiotherapist]

Jo Haworth, principal physiotherapist at The Walton Centre , said: 'VERA is an exciting use of digital technology to complement traditional healthcare. It will allow us the create a "virtual assistant" individualised for the patient which can support them to self-manage a variety of multi-disciplined team-based interventions.

'These may include therapy-based exercise programmes, patient-centred goal achievement, appointment times and daily scheduling. Patients will be able to access this virtual data and support at any time they wish to allow self-directed care, increased personal knowledge and ultimately increased patient empowerment.

Ms Haworth added: 'Across The Walton Centre and the Cheshire and Merseyside Rehabilitation Network we have been using lots of techniques and interventions within complex rehabilitation to aid this process previously but to be able to take it to the next level, bring everything together in one place and utilise bespoke technology is something I am very proud to be part of.'

'Hackathon' provided impetus

Research lead Kathryn Jarvis, a senior lecturer in occupational therapy at UCLan, said: 'We have worked closely with stroke survivors and healthcare professionals to develop VERA and the supporting training materials.' The results of the study will be published later this year.

Dr Jarvis added: 'In the study, we will gauge how VERA could be used to increase activity and functional recovery in neurological rehabilitation. In addition, we will explore how VERA can be implemented in a complex neurological inpatient setting.' 

The initial idea for VERA came from a 'hackathon'* held at The Walton Centre in 2018 and was then developed in a partnership involving The Walton Centre, UCLan and, at a later stage, Citrus Suite. The Walton Centre Charity provided £37,000 to develop a prototype and funding of almost £60,000 to test the research came from The Stroke Association and Med City. 

Promise of financial savings 

Through offering individualised programmes to stroke survivors, VERA aims to boost the recovery process. Mobile devices can be used to access a range of applications to support rehabilitation and VERA provides patient information, images and videos to guide bespoke personalised exercises, treatment information and a daily schedule and support. 

It is hoped the tool will empower stroke survivors by improving their understanding of rehabilitation and increasing their personal motivation and opportunity to participate in therapy. By streamlining the process, VERA aims to increase the availability of rehabilitation therapy to stroke survivors, help healthcare professionals use their time more effectively and, ultimately, save the NHS money.

Personalised approach is key

This digital tool will help us provide a bespoke process for each patient which will support our teams to provide the very best rehabilitation and therapy programme [Ganesh Bavikatte]

Ganesh Bavikatte, a consultant and clinical lead in rehabilitation medicine at The Walton Centre, said: 'Every patient who goes through the rehabilitation journey with The Walton Centre and our partners in the Cheshire and Merseyside Rehab Network, has a different experience. It is really personal to them.

Dr Bavikatte added: 'This digital tool will help us provide a bespoke process for each patient which will support our teams to provide the very best rehabilitation and therapy programme.'

Richard Francis, the Stroke Association's head of research, said: 'As a charity we know the vitally important part research plays to ensure stroke survivors can access the latest and best rehabilitation after stroke. Every stroke is different and so is every recovery, so personalising therapy is key to helping stroke make the best possible recovery.

Dr Francis added: 'We know that stroke survivors are still not accessing all the rehabilitation they need, which has only been made worse by the pandemic. That’s why funding these new technologies could help improve and increase access to personalised rehabilitation.' 

 * the goal of a hackathon is to create functioning software or hardware by the end of an event

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