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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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New Technology Helps Blind Veterans Enjoy More Independent Lives

January 9, 2006

Bill Johnson, Visual Impairment Service Team coordinator at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center demonstrates an I.D. Mate™ to veteran Bernard Corbit. The I.D. Mate™ is just one of several new, high-tech devices available to veterans to assist them with reading prescription labels, shopping, preparing meals, and even choosing matching clothes. The goal is to help these unique veterans enjoy more independent and safe lives.

Photo by:  Bobbi Gruner, MEDVAMC Public Affairs Officer

HOUSTON - The man squints at the bottle of pills but his vision is so poor he can not make out if he has picked up his Coumadin or Celebrex. Many veterans have eyesight so bad they can not read newspaper type. They rely on family, friends, or even guesswork to figure out what medication they are taking, the correct dosage, and the safety warnings.

The inability to read pill bottles can lead to dangerous mistakes: taking the wrong medication at the wrong time, the wrong dose, or missing the warning not to mix with a particular over-the-counter drug. According to the Institute of Medicine, more than 44,000 Americans die from medical errors annually.

The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center is expanding its services for blind veterans and introducing new devices to assist them with reading prescription labels, shopping, preparing meals, and even choosing matching clothes. The goal is to help these unique veterans enjoy more independent and safe lives.

Serving more than 1,000 blind veterans in southeast Texas, the MEDVAMC Visual Impairment Service Team recently hired a new outpatient rehabilitation specialist who, so far, has locally trained approximately 175 legally blind veterans. This training sometimes includes the innovative ScripTalk™ prescription reader and the state-of-the-art I.D. Mate™ device.

ScripTalk™ is a small machine about the size of a video tape. It is designed to be user friendly with only three buttons – one to turn it on and two to adjust setting. The veteran can hang it on the wall near his or her medicine cabinet. Holding the device near a prescription bottle, it scans the encoded label and, using speech synthesis technology, tells the patient exactly what is inside. Pertinent information such as the name of the patient, the name of the drug, the dosage, general instructions, warnings, and the prescription number along with the doctor’s name and telephone number are all converted into speech.

"Our goal is to help veterans remain in an independent-living environment. It gives individuals confidence in themselves to do what they need to do," said Randall May, MEDVAMC outpatient blind rehabilitation specialist who makes home visits to train patients. "This is about rediscovering and enjoying life."

The second device, the I.D. Mate™, can be used in the home, the workplace, or the shopping center to identify cans, food, jars, boxes, bottles, clothing, playing cards, compact discs, albums, cassette tapes, pictures, important documents, and thousands of other items. When shopping, a veteran holds an item near the device. The I.D. Mate™ scans the bar code on it and then verbally describes the contents. A headset can be used so the user can choose to be discreet.

 The machine contains recorded product information on more than 700,000 items found at any grocery store and comes with a bar code label maker.  This allows the user to make their own labels to identify individual pieces of clothing, shoes, or other items not in the machine’s database. With the I.D. Mate, a veteran independently can choose black socks to go with his black pants, toast wheat bread instead of white, or play a jazz music CD instead of a country one.

"If you were a blind veteran several years ago, I would give you a cane, talking watch, and large-button telephone, and send you on your way," said Bill Johnson, Visual Impairment Service Team coordinator. "For anything else, I had to send them off to a training center in another city. Now with the advances the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center has made, we're able to provide our veterans with local services in Houston and cutting-edge technology.”

Recently, the Visual Impairment Service Team began training veterans to use a new device that reads aloud magazines, mail, books, newspapers, and anything with typed print on it. While similar machines have been available for more than ten years, the SARA™ (Scanning and Reading Appliance) is more advanced, using the latest in advanced optical character recognition technology to scan text and then read it in crisp, clear speech in a variety of voices and languages.

A user simply places the book or document on the scanning area and presses the scan button. The device automatically scans and recognizes the text, and reads it aloud. During the reading, the user can adjust the voice rate and volume, as well as fast forward and rewind, or pause and take time to examine a document in detail. The machine will even spell out words to get a better understanding of what is being spoken.

“Veterans at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center continue to benefit from the latest scientific advances in health care and new technology available right here,” said Silvia Orengo-Nania, M.D., MEDVAMC Eye Care Line executive.

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