When nursing home residents lose dentures, they can face bigger problems than the $3,000 or more needed to replace them. They often need to wait months before a new set is made,
months in which they may become malnourished as they consume a special diet of pureed foods. As Alzheimer's disease and dementia become more common, lost devices such
as dentures, hearing aids and eyeglasses are becoming a bigger issue.
"This is a common problem among frail elderly people living in an institutionalized setting," said Fred Sganga, executive director of the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook.
Sganga, whose facility is located on the campus of Stony Brook University, decided to try to interest nearby tech firms in solving the problem.
"Sometimes they don't get satisfactory nutrition, which can lead to health problems," Astraion co-founder Vladimir Djuric, said of the consequences of these lost devices.
"They asked us if we could figure out a technology solution."
A year and a half later, Astraion, based in Stony Brook University's Center for Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, developed a variation on inventory-management
technology to track lost devices in nursing homes.
It's a big change for the firm, which was developing proprietary technology to manage warehouse inventory, an already-crowded field. Astraion instead adapted its technology
for a new health care application, effectively staking out new territory.
Astraion in February debuted Scandent, which implants radio frequency identification or RFID tags in health-care devices.
The system positions readers and antennas at key points in nursing homes such as kitchens and laundry rooms, where devices are likely to have been misplaced.
It also provides handheld devices to locate lost items. When a misplaced item passes by a key point, it triggers an alarm and emails are sent to nursing home staff with the location and owner of the item.
"It was a challenge. Off-the-shelf antennas look like bar codes. It'd be uncomfortable and wouldn't get read range.
It'd have to be within an inch to be detected," Djuric said. "We designed an antenna that can be read from 20 feet away that could be embedded into the denture
and be passive and doesn't require a battery. It's like having a little piece of copper embedded within the acrylic of the denture. It will only reflect a signal."
Astraion's journey is an example both of responding to a particular need and using technology to solve an overlooked health- care problem.
"This is the beauty of having a skilled nursing facility on the campus of a major academic university," said Sganga, who in February rolled out
the device at the veterans home. "I was taking advantage of what this university has to offer. It's all about connecting the dots."
Although the product is only debuting now, other nursing homes are taking a second look. "It saves us time," said David Fridkin, CEO of
Island Nursing Home in Holbrook, which in March installed the system a month after the veterans home." If the alarm goes off, they don't
have to search the whole building. So it benefits staff time."
U.S. nursing homes currently house 1.7 million residents, but Scandent's success is hardly guaranteed. Insurers reimburse for many things,
but not for this system, even if it saves thousands by reducing the need to replace devices.
"I'm doing it for the quality of life for my residents," Fridkin said. "Not having dentures creates difficulty with eating and speaking, and a loss of dignity."
Cost can be an obstacle for nursing homes, which face financial pressures including lower reimbursement from insurance companies and Medicaid. Scandent costs $10,000 and up.
"The upfront cost is a capital expenditure," Djuric said. "They have to plan it in their budget. Sometimes they have to wait until the next budget cycle."
Although there are 17,000 nursing homes nationwide, that's also a limited universe. And the system wasn't designed for residences, where millions of the elderly live.
"The problem for personal use is the readers and antenna are expensive," Djuric said. "It probably doesn't make sense to use at home for your keys or whatever else you
may lose, unless you're pretty rich. It makes sense at facilities with a lot of people."
Astraion recently sought to interest other institutions at a conference of the National Association of State Veterans Homes. Djuric said the firm is talking
to nearly 10 other nursing homes about implementing the system. But in order to make Scandent more attractive to nursing homes, Djuric hopes to adapt it to prevent theft.
"You could put tags on laptops in case people steal them or they get lost," he said. "All you have to do is put a portal at the exit and tag any item.
Wheelchairs go out the door and don't get returned. There will be a record of when it went out."
Astraion also is looking into whether the technology could provide an effective "wandering system" to stop forgetful patients from getting lost.
Djuric said patients who might wander out of nursing homes typically are monitored by more costly and less comfortable RFID technology embedded in watches and bracelets.
"That's one use of RFID in nursing home facilities," Djuric said. "Our system could be expanded to track equipment and even replace current resident wandering systems."