The new tech2people therapy center in Seestadt is set to set new standards in the Austrian physiotherapy and rehabilitation world in many respects. From the beginning of November, more than 20 state-of-the-art robotic devices with a total value of around 1.5 million euros will be in operation there, supervised by a team of nine physiotherapists. Together, they treat strokes, multiple sclerosis and paraplegia with outpatient therapies. The center promises affordable costs and no inpatient stay is required.
A press conference was held on Wednesday to mark the opening of the center with Gregor Demblin, co-founder of tech2people, Hannes Kinigadner, a convinced patient, Peter Eichler, member of the Management Board of UNIQA Austria and Peter Lackner, Head of the Neurology Department at Klinikum Floridsdorf.
26,000 potential new stroke patients
There are currently 520,000 people living with multiple sclerosis in Europe. There are 12,000 new cases every year. In Austria, around 50,000 people are dependent on a wheelchair, of which around 4,000 are affected by a spinal cord injury. Furthermore, 9.53 million people in Europe suffer a stroke, with an annual increase of one million new cases. Stroke is one of the third most common causes of death overall.
"In Austria, the number of new stroke patients is around 26,000 per year. It is likely that this number will not decrease significantly in the coming years; on the contrary, it could even increase. Although we expect improvements in primary and secondary prevention, the frequency of strokes will tend to increase due to the ageing population," said Peter Lackner, Head of the Department of Neurology at Floridsdorf Hospital, at the press conference.
Walking upright again after almost 25 years in a wheelchair
The new tech2people therapy center aims to provide "optimal treatment" for all types of neurological diseases, including stroke, multiple sclerosis and traumatic paraplegia. tech2people was founded in 2018 by Gregor Demblin, who has been paraplegic himself since 1995. Demblin was able to walk upright again in 2017 with an exoskeleton from Germany after almost 25 years in a wheelchair.
"2017 was a very formative experience because I tried out an exoskeleton for the first time. It was incredibly strenuous, but it felt great. Immediately afterwards, I thought to myself that I had to do it regularly. I then put it into practice and noticed how it benefited my health. I quickly realized that I should enable other people to have this wonderful experience too," says the tech2people founder.
In collaboration with Michael Seitlinger and Dennis Veit, tech2people, the first outpatient robotics-supported neurotherapy center in Austria, was gradually established. With the support of sponsors, they now give patients access to outpatient physiotherapy at an hourly rate.
About 1500 to 1800 steps in one hour
"With an exoskeleton, around 1,500 to 1,800 steps can be taken in about an hour. We treat patients with strokes, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injuries here. The quality of the therapy is crucial to whether I as a person have the opportunity to walk again, whether I have the chance to work again, how independent I am and whether I can continue to live at home. Ultimately, this also influences my life expectancy. We therefore rely heavily on robotic therapy," says Demblin.
According to the founder, robotic therapies have enormous advantages. "They make it possible to simulate movements that would not be possible in manual therapy, such as walking or gripping with my legs, for example. They also enable extremely efficient training due to the much higher repetition rate. In conventional therapy with manual support, you can probably achieve between 30 and 50 steps in an hour or even a few years, depending on your fitness level."
Robotic therapy doubles the chance of being able to walk again after strokes
In addition to the exoskeleton, the center also offers patients other devices. These include the Lokomat, one of the most established and best-researched robotic systems in neurological therapy, which is now standard in modern neurorehabilitation.
"There are areas in which robotic physiotherapy has already been extensively researched and proven. For example, the study situation in relation to stroke patients is very solid. There is clear evidence that stroke patients who receive robotic-assisted gait therapy in combination with classical physiotherapy have about twice the chance of being able to walk again," said Peter Lackner, a specialist in neurology who is acting as the leading medical advisor for the new center.
UNIQA as a supporter and sponsor
Peter Eichler, Member of the Management Board for Personal Insurance at UNIQA Insurance Group AG, emphasizes: "We have experienced and heard impressively what a transformative effect this center can have. It is able to give back a piece of autonomy to people who have been hit hard by fate, strengthen their self-determination, offer them better treatment options and increase their life expectancy. In short, it offers the prospect of a better life. If you look at our motto or vision, 'Living better together', all our activities should be subordinate to this principle, as should the support efforts of the UNIQA Private Foundation and UNIQA insurance companies."
Hannes Kinigadner also had his say at the opening conference. He had an accident in 2002 and now trains with the exoskeleton himself. He knows from his own experience: "If you find yourself in such an unfortunate situation, you need all the support you can get - be it personal or technical help. It is very important that we as a society use the technological knowledge we have acquired to give those affected their autonomy back."
"Seamless neurological rehabilitation is of crucial importance"
According to Lackner, Austria has an outstanding inpatient acute rehabilitation system. Nevertheless, the need for outpatient rehabilitation is increasing rapidly. "The advantages are obvious: fewer inpatient stays, more effective treatment for patients and a more cost-effective alternative for the public sector." After severe neurological illnesses, seamless neurological rehabilitation is of crucial importance. This option is generally available in the inpatient sector in Austria. As a rule, patients receive a rehabilitation place in Austria after a stay in an acute clinic.
Nevertheless, inpatient rehabilitation usually ends after one to two months. However, neuroplasticity, i.e. the mechanisms that can be used to relearn lost functions after a stroke, extends over a period of six months to two years. During this time, it is possible to make further progress with the lost functions. It is therefore particularly important to provide additional outpatient rehabilitation services and ensure seamless therapy for patients.
Costs at 135 euros due to sponsors
In order to make this therapy available to as many people as possible, the support of numerous sponsors is currently of great importance, as they make these offers possible in the first place. "Thanks to our sponsors, this form of therapy only costs 135 euros, of which a further 55 euros are reimbursed by the health insurance company. If I wanted to undergo the same therapy in the USA, it would cost three times as much," explains Demblin.
Another important aspect that was close to the founder's heart is the fact that he and his team deliberately did not create a clinical environment, as is usually the case for therapies. In such environments, people often feel that they lose their autonomy. "Here, we value a pleasant atmosphere that is more comparable to a wellness or fitness center. The patients who have already visited us have responded extremely positively to this and feel very comfortable here."
Possible future: exoskeletons instead of wheelchairs
Gregor Demblin concluded: "Our aim is to treat 500 patients a year here during the expansion phase. That's 500 fates that will ideally have a better life. The second goal is to advance the technology. We are probably the only facility in the world that offers manufacturers the opportunity to test their devices as prototypes. This is something we would like to expand in the future. And my hope is that one day we will see exoskeletons instead of wheelchairs, and the image of limited therapy options will disappear."