Fall detectors: useful, but not infallible
The device equipped with a fall detector by Roland Comtois
To feel safe, many seniors who live alone turn to collars with panic buttons and a fall detector. But the technology is not always reliable, contrary to the speeches of salespeople and advertisements which seek to be reassuring.
Roland Comtois dreamed of living to be 100 years old. Engineer then federal deputy for 18 years, he was close to his two daughters with whom he loved to travel. At 86, he took his passport for ten years, says his daughter Ninon.
Roland Comtois on his 90th birthday
Louise and Ninon Comtois
To have peace of mind, in 2019, Roland Comtois purchased a fall detection device equipped with an emergency button. He had it around his neck all the time, according to his daughter Louise. His father is well aware that his device will not prevent him from falling. But at least in the event of a fall, she says, an alert will be triggered and the emergency services will be called to the scene quickly.
All is well until the 31st October 2020. That day, Louise Comtois received a call from an emergency physician. His father was taken to hospital after being discovered unconscious on his kitchen floor by staff at the private residence where he lives.
He suffers from a head trauma with hemorrhages in the brain. He died a few hours later as a result of this fall.
It was the shock of my life, she explains, her voice breaking with emotion. For Ninon and Louise Comtois, there is no doubt that their father was indeed wearing his device when he fell at home. The recording of the intervention of the paramedics, which they obtained, testifies to this, according to her. We hear a paramedic say that she is trying to take away [Roland Comtois'] medical case which never rang.
In Quebec, falls are responsible for:< /p>
- 21,433 hospitalizations per year;
- 1082 deaths/year;
- People aged 65 and over represent 91.9% of these deaths and 71.2% of the total of these hospitalizations.
Falls in the elderly are very common. Every year, about 30% of people aged 65 and over and 50% of people aged 80 and over who live in their homes fall. In her practice, Dr. Josée Filion, geriatrician at the University of Montreal Hospital Center, sees this type of case daily. This is a phenomenon of capital importance, underlines the medical specialist. Especially since half of the falls will result in an injury.
Josée Filion, geriatrician, director of the geriatrics program at UdeM
Combined with a medical assessment, she recommends fall detection devices to her patients who live alone and who are at risk of falling, in the hope of preventing them from remaining on the floor for a long time. When they arrive at the hospital with an extended stay on the ground, it has major consequences. More complications, such as wounds, are expected, she says.
Fall detection devices are therefore useful. But Dr. Josée Filion is well aware of their limits. When we do the laboratory studies, there seems to be a good sensitivity to detect falls. But in everyday life, it's not the same, she says.
Telus, with whom Roland Comtois had a contract, refused to answer questions of The invoiceon the effectiveness of its fall detection devices. To see more clearly, we turned to Patrick Boissy, researcher at the Research Center on Aging in Sherbrooke and specialist in worn sensors. According to the expert, the detection of falls by devices like that of Roland Comtois, is based on three elements.
When you fall, you get closer to the ground. This rapprochement induces an acceleration. When you hit the ground, it induces an impact. And when you fall completely horizontal, you change position relative to the vertical. The device will come and detect these three events and combine them together to arrive at deducing whether the person has fallen or not, specifies the expert.
Patrick Boissy, researcher at the Research Center on Aging and professor at the University of Sherbrooke (left), tests fall detection devices with his team.
Acceleration, impact and change of position: each of these elements must be present for a fall to be detected, according to Patrick Boissy. This means that certain types of falls go under the radar. All so-called soft falls are probably the most difficult to detect, points out the one who is also a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Sherbrooke. In particular, he gives the example of vertical but slow falls on the edge of a wall, where there will be no change in the person's orientation.
Like other experts consulted, Patrick Boissy argues that, to his knowledge, there is no data on the effectiveness of fall detectors in real conditions. The scientific literature on the subject is simply insufficient. For the moment, we only have data […] in simulated fall conditions. However, according to him, the simulated falls do not reflect the real falls.
Telus no longer offers the device that Roland Comtois wore. The company now offers another on its website which would work in much the same way and whose real effectiveness is also unknown, according to Patrick Boissy.
Telus marketing emphasizes the peace of mind the device provides. You have to click on a note at the bottom of the page to discover that the device may not detect all drops. Yet in 20 Telus outlets we contacted or visited, the majority of sellers did not mention this caveat. Many tell us that the device works every time.
For their part, Louise and Ninon Comtois only became aware of the limits of the device after the death of their father, when they found a warning in the last paragraph of a document entitled terms and conditions which was in the box. It is written very, very, very small. It's written where people don't read, argues Louise Comtois.
The daughters of Roland Comtois are suing today for damages, for nearly $260,000, the division of Telus which acquired Direct Alert during their father's subscription.
By email, Telus Health offers its condolences to the Comtois family. The company does not want to grant an interview since the case is currently in court. But in the documents filed in court, Telus maintains that it committed no fault and complied with its obligations. Telus adds that Climax Technology is responsible as the manufacturer of the personal emergency response system. For its part, Climax Technology denies any responsibility in this affair.
For Ninon and Louise Comtois, the pain is still strong two years after the death of their father. He never asked anything for himself. He was always ready to help others. The day he needed the others, they weren't there, express the two sisters with sadness.
The report by Marie-France Bélanger and Stéphanie Allaire is broadcast on La invoice on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. on ICI Télé.