At first glance, the concept behind orthotics is deceptively simple. But what once were simple pieces of cobbled together leather, metal and wood are now highly technical medical devices thanks to the integration of smart technology. With embedded sensors, the orthotics are now being developed to improve healthcare in remote regions, including for those who are 4 times more at risk of developing diabetes than the general population.
For allied health company Healthia (ASX: HLA), orthotics are a key part of their podiatry division.
Through their nationwide network of clinics that include the My FootDr brand, Healthia services more than hundreds of thousands of patients per year. The Company also owns 3D-printed orthotic manufacturer, iOrthotics and a network of retail footwear stores.
iOrthotics’ offers Healthia an eco-friendly way to deliver customised treatment to their patients where podiatrists digitally scan a patient’s feet and order custom made, 3D-printed orthotics.
Taking things a step further, iOrthotics is investigating how they can integrate more tech into their product. With a sensory chip embedded, smart orthotics will be able to offer unique insight into movement and gait analysis to gather valuable data for clinicians. The quantitative analysis these orthotics offer could prove invaluable across numerous applications, from managing athletes to prevention of diabetic foot pathology.
A common issue amongst people with diabetes, foot related problems arise due to peripheral arterial and peripheral neuropathy, which reduce blood and nerve supply to the feet. Consequently, people with diabetes can experience ulceration and soft tissue infection which, if not managed correctly can ultimately result in foot deformity, amputation and potentially death.
Most people with diabetes have a podiatrist on their team of allied health professionals. However, there is one particularly vulnerable sector of the population that doesn’t always have this access, a trend that iOrthotics is looking to change.
According to data recently released from the 2021 Census, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is growing, with 3.2% of the population identifying as indigenous, an increase of over 25% since 2016. The Census data also revealed that the Indigenous population is ageing with over 47,000 over the age of 65 (as compared to 21,000 in 2011).
Diabetes Australia estimates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 4 times more likely to develop diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians. Being over 45 years of age is also a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.
The monitoring of patient movement remotely via smart orthotics means that clinicians can effectively manage ongoing conditions better, and alert patients to potential foot ulceration and damage. The sensors built into the insoles can then facilitate alerts to patients when they’ve been on their feet for too long, allowing for behaviour modification to avoid greater damage.
With many indigenous Australians living in remote locations, this type of telehealth can be hugely helpful to maintain contact with patients between routine healthcare visits, and manage issues before emergencies arise.
Launching initiatives to assist remote communities with high Indigenous populations, the Queensland University of Technology Design Lab team and iOrthotics were awarded a $2 million Government grant in 2021 to accelerate the development of smart orthotics to reduce diabetes related amputations. The University and iOrthotics are collaborating with Mt Isa Hospital and the Kalkaddoon people to carry out these objectives, assess practitioner and patient compliance and gather patient feedback. The QUT team are also running comparative analysis on different sensors and other products on the market. Once analysed, the research team will have a better understanding of which sensors are most accurate and easy to use.
In addition to the custom manufacturing that enables embedding of smart sensors, the iOrthotics method of 3D-printing also reduces wastage by 95% compared to traditional polypropylene devices. The whole production process is highly efficient, and an asset when delivering much needed healthcare to those who would otherwise have limited access.
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