How eye-tracking tech could help ICU patients communicate

Eye-tracking devices might help some patients communicate even when mechanical ventilators make it impossible for them to speak, a pilot project suggests. Researchers offered eye-trackers to 12 patients on ventilators in intensive care units (ICUs) at the Johns Hopkins Hospital during 2013 and 2014.
All of the participants were cognitively capable of communication and able to convey comprehension by blinking, nodding their head or some other motion. Tiny cameras followed patients’ eye movements, allowing them to communicate by staring directly at images and words on a computer monitor. Once patients got training on how to use the gadgets, the eye-trackers appeared to help patients feel less confused, happier and more confident in their ability to communicate.
“Eye-tracking devices may be an effective tool to promote patient communication and increased psychosocial well-being in selected ICU patients,” lead study author Jonah Gerry, a researcher at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York, said by email. The pilot project suggests that using the eye-trackers is feasible in this setting, and merits further research, Gerry added.
Approximately 40 percent of patients in ICUs require mechanical ventilation, preventing them from communicating verbally, Gerry and colleagues note in the journal Surgery. Many of these patients may also struggle with even the slight body movements needed for non-verbal communication, making it difficult for them to signal for help, the researchers note.
Before using the eye-trackers, the patients in the study relied on mouthing words or blinking to communicate. During the study, occupational or speech pathology therapists provided five days of 45-minute training sessions to help patients learn to use the eye-trackers to spell out notes, indicate their needs using picture sets, and play memory games.
By the end of the experiment, all of the patients could communicate basic needs using the eye-trackers