Helppad features an odor sensor that detects and digitally tracks excretions. It then automatically calculates excretion patterns and digitizes these records so that they can be shared among caregiving teams—who can then use the data to identify ideal diaper changing times and reduce the number of wasted changes and incontinence incidents, supporting better care with less strain on caregivers. Helppad is also simple to use—just lay it on the bed for an easy, safe, no-contact solution.
Future Care Lab in Japan discovered the Helppad Excretion Detection System as it was looking into ways to streamline excretion caregiving tasks and reduce the manpower required to perform them. On the development company side, it was hard to know where to start with excretion care, since there were seemingly limitless ways to approach the problem. But the Lab was able to design an assessment approach and clearly define targets in a way that allowed the company to redefine the needs that Helppad was currently filling and move towards the on-site testing phase.
On-Site Evaluation Story
(From the development company)
(and PhD in Engineering)
I established Aba in 2011 while I was still at university. My experiences with caregiving in my family led me to want to reduce the burden on caregivers, so I got into developing robots that would support them. That’s how the Helppad Excretion Detection System was created and eventually marketed.
(From Future Care Lab in Japan)
Future Care Lab in Japan
R&D Lead (Director of Social Services)
Haga worked at a manufacturer for ten years in the planning of universal design products and nursing care robots. Today, she is an R&D lead at Future Care Lab in Japan.
(From Future Care Lab in Japan)
Future Care Lab in Japan
Researcher (Care Manager), Education and Training Department
After working as a care manager at a nursing care facility, Kondo took charge of educational planning for care managers in the company’s training department. He is currently working as an R & D manager at the Future Care Lab in Japan.
Give us some background on how you came to develop the Helppad.
Ui: My grandmother started suffering from depression when I was in junior high school, and as my family and I cared for her I began to realize that there was a limit to what people could do on their own. I started getting more interested in caregiving, and went on to study caregiving robots at university. I also did my practicum at an intensive elder care facility, where caregivers would press on the patients’ bellies to help them with excretion—which sometimes looked uncomfortable for the residents. I ended up blurting out to one of the employees, “Do you think this is the kind of care they want to receive?” “Who knows,” the grim-faced care worker replied brusquely. I’ll never forget that experience. When I looked into the situation, I learned that the resident had experienced fecal incontinence while at home, so the family wanted them to excrete while they were at the facility. Meaning that the professional caregiver had to think about the family’s care as well. I was ashamed of myself for having blurted out my question without thinking very deeply about it. That experience made me realize that there are situations that put caregivers in a bind, and that they struggle to do their jobs day after day. I decided that I wanted to do something to help make their lives easier. When we assembled for our end-of-day meeting and I asked the employees what kind of robot they’d like to have, they told me, “one that can see inside diapers without taking them off.” I was determined to use technology to solve the problem, and that’s when I began developing the Helppad excretion sensor. I had my eye on developing the prototype by the end of my junior year, so I looked for a company that would develop it with me—but then the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, and the conversation just died. From there, it was difficult to proceed with the new projects. I never let go of my dream of making it commercially available though, so when someone said to me, “if a company won’t help you, why not just make it yourself?” I made up my mind to start my own business.
Tell us about the needs and seed ideas that Future Care Lab (“the Lab”) in Japan and Aba Inc. matched.
Kondo: Privacy is obviously a major concern when it comes to nursing tasks that involve excretion support, so the timing of care is critical. Proper timing requires accurate assessment, and making sure a person’s bladder is properly storing and releasing urine, for example, takes detailed observation of excretion behavior day after day. That’s psychologically hard on residents, so if we can use technology to detect odors or excretion volumes and collect highly accurate data that predicts when excretion is likely to occur, we can change how we interact with residents—since it’s no longer necessary to waste time checking for excretions. It’s also ideal in that it helps us to preserve patient dignity while streamlining caregiver tasks.
Haga: At the Lab, resolving the challenge of caregiver shortages is one of our priority issues, so we’d been looking into ways that we might streamline tasks associated with excretion and meal support to reduce the manpower they require. Based on the needs expressed at caregiving sites, we started looking for an excretion sensor that would standardize the highly accurate data needed for excretion assessments while automating the process and saving labor. We also wanted something that would both preserve user dignity while making the task easier on caregivers. That’s when we found Helppad. We couldn’t wait to see it, use it, and clarify the evaluation design and aim of the product for ourselves, so we contacted Ms. Ui.
Ui: When the caregivers told me they wanted to “see inside diapers without taking them off,” I didn’t fully understand the extent of the problem. There are limitless ways to get involved with excretion tasks at nursing care sites, so for a while I wasn’t able to decide what I should be aiming at. But when I met and spoke with the Lab team, they helped me redefine the needs that current Helppad functions could address. As a manufacturer, it’s only natural to feel that your product is something special, but the Lab team were able to provide rational, objective feedback based on a solid understanding of where both the development company and care facility were coming from. This resulted in an almost seamless communication process.
Give us some details on how the project unfolded. Did you encounter any difficulties during the process?
Haga: Once we understood how the Helppad sensors and system worked, we identified the requirement definitions for the target users as well as the current status of excretion assessments and problems in care settings. We then looked at target applications and evaluation methods before collecting Helppad usage data for a fixed period to determine excretion timing. We wanted to take some of the burden off of caregivers by having technology do some of the work they previously had to do all themselves.
Wanting to know exactly when to help with excretions in real time on one hand, and wanting to collect and store a week’s worth of data to make care decisions on the other are completely different goals, requiring different technologies. Our most critical task was deciding exactly what our goal was and figuring out how to use the functions that would get us there. It wasn’t easy.
Ui: For me, virtually the entire process was easy. The Lab team coordinated the on-site testing with the care facilities, designed the tests, evaluated the functions—everything was in order. It’s not as bad now as it used to be, but there are still people who would rather keep technology out of nursing care settings. I doubt there are very many Japanese companies that can speak to researchers and engineers as equals—much less able to design tests, conduct evaluations, and report the results. If anything, we’re the ones that learned the most from this process.
Haga: When I heard Ms. Ui’s story, I felt like we had a lot in common in terms of our backgrounds and the way we think. I also had a disabled grandmother who I helped care for from the time I was young, so I knew the stress caregiving places on immediate family members and relatives firsthand, and that there’s a limit to what people can do on their own. Like Ms. Ui, I also had a chance to work in a nursing care facility during college, which further convinced me that we need to make full use of technology in those settings—though I realized that technology could also have some negative impacts on the front lines. From there, I started trying to find answers as to what should be done by people and what we should leave to technology. So fundamentally, Ms. Ui and I were on the same page.
What did you discover or learn during the process of on-site testing?
Ui: I learned a lot from the Lab about designing on-site tests—particularly the standards used for evaluation. I was grateful that the Lab went as far as to measure the detection accuracy of our product and figure out an evaluation method that caregivers would be happy with given the way it was measuring. Development companies tend to be heavy-handed, which can be hard on users—but the Lab was able to strike a delicate balance between the two on that tricky point. Thanks to the experience of the Lab team, I realized that if you’re thinking about developing a product, you’ll get the best result by relying on professionals to get you there.
Haga: Every nursing care organization has their own approach to excretion care and assessment, so we wanted to do our on-site evaluations in a way that would allow as many of them as possible to use the technology. I’ve personally visited over 150 nursing care facilities run by other companies from Hokkaido to Okinawa, and Ms. Ui’s been involved with many organizations as well. By regularly discussing and exchanging feedback on a variety of issues, we decided that we wanted to incorporate technology in a way that reflected the state of the industry as a whole—not just excretion assessment—and gave people solutions that didn’t rely solely on the expertise and knowledge of their staff. The fact that we shared this conviction was incredibly encouraging.
Kondo: I’m incredibly grateful to Ms. Ui and her team for the sincere approach they took to collecting user requests throughout the on-site testing and evaluation process. I also realized how important it is that the testing side have a proper understanding of the purpose of the device. It’s only after people know what tools are for and how to use them that they deliver the intended results. And once people start using a device, they start wanting it to do even more than it’s designed to do, which makes them dissatisfied with it and wanting a different one. The experience reminded me that because tools are simply tools, human intelligence is increasingly important the more useful to us they become.
Where is Helppad now, and what are your hopes for it in the future?
Ui: We’ve already delivered a total of around a hundred devices to about eighty nursing care facilities, including those that we interviewed, that helped with on-site testing, and purchased them. And we’ve heard from many more who want to purchase them once their nursing care robot subsidy comes through. Going forward, we want to make the Helppad into a device that people “don’t even know it is there.” We have a few ideas about how to do this, including micro-sizing it and building it into diapers or cloth underwear, or even making it into a kind of in-room installation that you’d just set up somewhere and leave alone. Either way, we want our basic concept to remain unchanged. We’ll always remember our promise to caregivers on the front lines: caregiving is meant to support people’s lives, so it shouldn’t compromise their lives.
Haga: We’re currently running on-site evaluations at two Sompo Care facilities, but we’re planning to expand and include those with more subjects that meet our requirement definitions. In the future, we hope to develop products that can be used by an even wider range of people, using methods that keep our current concept intact while placing as little burden as possible on users and caregivers alike. As Ms. Ui mentioned, if they can create a miniaturized or standalone product, it will allow the device to be used by more people and result in even higher-quality care. In addition, the Lab is always looking to get a better understanding of technology and more clearly define its aims and application methods so that we know where we should be relying on it, what we should be leaving to people, and how to divide it up. In this way, we hope to expand the fields in which care facilities can utilize technology instead of manpower alone.
Interviews based on information current as of September 2021.