Technology for Health and Safety: Exploring the 'Wearables Disruption'
Horizon scanning enables us to track disruptive technologies: technologies that, while still in infancy, have the potential to significantly alter the way businesses and industries operate. In this new series of articles, we take a closer look at much-hyped wearable technology or 'wearables'.
Smart wearables are often touted as one of the technologies that will soon change our lives, providing new solutions to healthcare and ageing issues, medical monitoring, emergency management, safety at work and lifting productivity.
These electronic devices, which usually consist of sensors and a wireless communication node that can be worn on the body as accessories or implants, have the considerable advantage of being able to monitor, collect and record biometric, location and movement data in real time, as well as communicate these data via wireless or cellular communications. The most popular devices so far are activity tracking wrist bands and smartwatches, but the whole list extends to smart clothing, smart patches, smart glasses, virtual reality headsets and exoskeletons.
The health-based wearables on the market today can collect a user’s data including heart rate, calories burned, steps walked, blood pressure, and time spent exercising. More advanced systems are being researched to measure blood alcohol content, manage specific illnesses, and assess health risk.
Rapid advances in technology, functionality and size are being achieved for wearable devices, with more real-time applications. Sales are picking up fast. It is estimated by SNS Telecom & IT that by the end of 2021, wearable devices will represent a market worth US$45 billion with over 250m annual unit shipments . With huge investments in healthcare digital applications ('digital therapeutic') and platforms from Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Amazon, the trend is expected to continue to pick up steam, and wearables to become ubiquitous in the not too distant future.
Social acceptance of these devices is also on the rise, with more people relying on a combination of wearables and health apps to monitor their wellbeing and activity. A PricewaterhouseCoopers 2016 survey found that in England, 55% of respondents own a wearable (including smartphones with dedicated apps).
Consumer health wearables are predicted to become the next 'Dr Google' DIY diagnosis tool. Indeed, wearable technologies for diagnosis or physiological monitoring could help in the prevention of serious health problems and to contain the rising economic burden for healthcare services. These devices can give patients direct access to personal analytics that can contribute to their healthcare, facilitate preventive care and aid in the management of ongoing illness. Some commentators think that we could be on the brink of a paradigm shift in healthcare, moving away from interventions when something goes wrong towards systematic monitoring and proactive intervention.
We seem to be at a turning point. Wearables are more and more being included in corporate wellness programmes. Gartner research estimated that by 2018, 2m employees with dangerous or physically demanding roles (such as first responders like paramedics and the fire brigade) would be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment. The figures are still limited in scale for general and sedentary jobs, although surveys indicate that employees are increasingly expecting their companies to provide them with wearable tech in the near future. Tractica research forecasts that more than 75m wearables will be used in the workplace by 2020, as employers recognise that supporting the health of their staff translates into reduced healthcare costs, less sick leave taken, and higher productivity.
The rail industry is facing the challenge of making the most out of this digital revolution which can enhance health and safety, while having to design the appropriate validation and regulatory framework.
There is clear potential for wearable tech to help tackle fatigue and alertness monitoring, with some devices already being trialled in aviation, truck driving and on the Australian railways. It remains to be seen how these can be integrated into a fully-fledged fatigue management system.
Remote workers, alongside tracks or on the road, would benefit from the type of location tracking plus emergency alerts that wearables enable in case of trouble.
It can be easily imagined that wearables will soon allow people with some chronic illnesses (such as diabetes) or some disabilities (such as sensory impairment), to access roles that would remain out of bounds without the real time monitoring or sensory augmentation that wearable devices can provide.
And, of course, sedentary workers in rail should also benefit from the general use of fitness, health and wellbeing wearables.
That is if the current well-identified challenges of wearables are appropriately mitigated. One of these is the establishment of a clear regulatory framework providing at the same time freedom to innovate and ensuring an appropriate level of protection for users’ health, safety, data and privacy. Indeed, there is a lack of standards and test methods to ensure that these devices are reliable and safe. Furthermore, employee data privacy and data protection can pose a challenge.
This series of weekly articles will explore the latest developments in wearable technology, the short and long term opportunities that these offer to the rail industry, and some of the wider challenges and trends of the 'wearables disruption'. If you are developing, trialling or using wearables, or simply interested in this topic, I would love to hear to from you to ensure that work in this space is shared and different perspectives considered.