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'Like the UV index': Calgary researcher looks to build warning tool to prevent falls on ice

A group of researchers say the 'slip and fall index' could help improve pedestrian safety. (Dave Gilson/CBC - image credit)
A group of researchers say the 'slip and fall index' could help improve pedestrian safety. (Dave Gilson/CBC - image credit)

An orthopaedic surgeon and University of Calgary assistant professor has a plan that he says could prevent falls on ice, ease the burden on hospitals and save the healthcare system costs — if he can secure the funding he needs.

It all started when Dr. Neil White had a gut feeling: that surges in Calgary hospital visits from falls on ice are predictable, given weather conditions and melt-freeze cycles.

He wanted to prove it. So alongside other researchers, White compared 11 years of data on Calgary ER visits from falls on ice to corresponding weather data, and found out that his gut feeling was right.

With that came a solution that White and his colleagues call the 'slip and fall index'.

"The slip and fall index is like the UV index or [an] air quality index. It tells you how risky the conditions are today," said White.

Dr. Neil White is an orthopaedic surgeon and clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary.
Dr. Neil White is an orthopaedic surgeon and clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary.

Dr. Neil White is an orthopaedic surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Calgary. (Submitted by Neil White)

The idea is that the Alberta-wide tool would measure the risk of slipping and falling on snow, and alert Albertans in various fall risk categories how to best stay safe outdoors when it's dangerously slippery outside.

White said on a day deemed 'very dangerous,' the alert for a younger person with no fall risk would be to put on cleats and minimize steps outside.

"If you had an older adult that already had had falls or was in a high fall risk category, the messaging would be, 'Don't go out today. Use meal delivery services. Rely on your relatives. Today is not a day to go out.'"

White's study on the slip and fall index was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. Researchers analyzed nearly 15,000 emergency department visits from slips and falls on ice that resulted in orthopaedic trauma in those 11 years.

"Not only is it good for Albertans to try to prevent them from falling, but it's also very good for our health care system to try to take the top off these surges," said White.

He said implementing this tool could alleviate pressure on the health care system in the winter months, reduce surgery wait times, and save costs, but that he's having trouble securing the funding from the province he needs to launch it.

'Orthomageddon'

Dr. Eddy Lang, department head for emergency medicine in the Calgary zone, is on board with the idea.

He said there's a phenomenon specific to Calgary related to chinooks that has emergency departments treating an increase in fractures when the ground freezes up after a prolonged warm spell.

It's so significant that hospital staff have even coined a term for those days: Orthomageddon.

"On an Orthomageddon day, you can have six or seven times the normal number of cases. We usually do two or three fractures on every shift — here we can see 15, 16, 18," said Lang.

Lang agrees that Orthomageddon days are predictable based on weather patterns, and could be prevented with simple public health alerts.

400 city trucks are working to de-ice the walkways, according to spokesperson Philippe Sabourin.
400 city trucks are working to de-ice the walkways, according to spokesperson Philippe Sabourin.

White said implementing the slip and fall index could help Alberta's health care system save costs. (Radio-Canada)

"We've always advocated for people to get alerts on their phones that maybe will prompt them to put the crampons on and maybe limit the dog walking that day, or walk the dog with crampons on. And maybe that's not the best day to take grandma to the hairdresser if it's really, really slippery out there."

Biggest hurdle? Funding

White said his goal is to build the app for the entire province, and as he gains more data, he'll make it more granular for different areas — like each quadrant in Calgary.

However, despite having most of what he needs to launch the app for the public, he's facing one major hurdle: securing funding from the province.

"I'm saying I could spend half a million dollars to save millions. But in a system that's clamped down, they just don't see it that way," said White.

"If we could just have an intervention that led to a one per cent decrease in falls, we're looking at somewhere north of $1 million."