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UK trials body cameras for staff in mental health wards

The technology could calm patients and reduce instances of physical restraint.

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An early trial has found that staff-worn body cameras can reduce confrontation and aggressive behaviour in patients suffering from mental health issues. The pilot ran for three months at Berrywood Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Northampton, England, and was primarily concerned with the "feasibility" of a large-scale bodycam deployment. Researchers wanted to know how comfortable the cameras were, how much training would be required for staff, and how difficult it would be to record and store the resulting data securely. As an aside, the team asked staff to rate the effectiveness of the cameras. The feedback was largely positive.

"Patients have changed their behaviour when they were told it was being filmed," one staff member said. "[It's] useful to have a record in case of any complaints about restraint and it makes staff more aware of their body language." Another added: "I have seen a few occasions where the incident had de-escalated and believe this to have been helped by the camera being turned on." Of the people who wore a camera during the trial, 90 percent agreed it could prevent confrontational situations because patients often improve their behaviour once a recording has been started.

It's hoped the technology will reduce instances of verbal abuse and violence. Physical restraint is a carer's last resort, and can be a highly traumatic experience for patients. The body-worn cameras have the potential to improve patient behaviour before such a drastic measure is necessary. "We know that emergency restraint has physical health issues," Dr Alex O'Neill-Kerr, Clinical Medical Director for Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust told the BBC. "Anything that we can do to reduce that would be very beneficial for patients, but also for staff, because staff can get injured when they perform restraint on patients."

The inverse could also hold true. If all major incidents are recorded, hospital staff will be further encouraged to avoid misconduct. The final footage could also be used to settle disputes between staff and patients, and help shape future training programs and care techniques. Sixty-one percent of those who wore the cameras agreed they could prevent confrontation because carers were more likely to behave professionally.

The pilot was not without issue, however. Incidents involving verbal abuse rose in three wards, stayed the same in one and dropped in another compared to the same period last year. Instances of violence rose in two and dropped in three. Staff's use of emergency restraints fell in three and rose in two. Across all five wards, however, the number of restraints fell from 41 to 18. "This is a promising piece of research, as any measure that could help to reduce violent confrontation and restraint in inpatient units could have obvious benefits for both patients and staff," Richard Colwill, a spokesperson for UK mental health charity Sane said.

Reveal supplied 12 'Calla' body cameras for the project. They're small devices that can be attached to a lanyard or magnet. The user slides a button on the side to initiate a recording, at which point the camera bleeps and turns on a red light and small, forward-facing screen. All of the footage is stored on the camera until it's returned to a docking station, where the data is uploaded to a secure server. The company supplied hardware for a similar trial at two secondary schools earlier this year. It was hoped the technology would discourage students from disrupting their classes.

While the pilot in Northampton is encouraging to medical professionals, it's being treated with caution. These are early findings and more investigation will be needed to deduce if the cameras can consistently improve staff safety, and why the technology has such a profound effect on patient behaviour. O'Neill-Kerr said the body cameras will soon be deployed at Kettering General Hospital and that meetings are underway so that "a proper research evaluation" can be carried out. "These things could be expensive, but in the long term I think they would improve patient quality, and that's the most important thing," he told the BBC.

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