Disruptive technology and emerging trends in employee healthcare
Organisations are embracing technology and delivering digital healthcare solutions like never before.
As workplaces adjust to the impact of COVID-19 – a catalyst for employers to reassess employee health and wellbeing provision – this trend is unlikely to abate any time soon.
Indeed, with a rise in home working, Willis Towers Watson’s Emerging Trends in Healthcare Delivery survey found that 90 per cent of employers have recognised a need to expand their roles to meet the broader health, lifestyle and wellbeing requirements of employees. Furthermore, almost half (46 per cent) see a need to increase healthcare provision as a result of the burgeoning pressures on the NHS.
Disruptive healthcare technologies will have a big role to play here as the employee healthcare landscape evolves. Their impact will be far-reaching, with innovations already helping to shape the future before our very eyes.
We take a look at five disruptive technologies and their role in transforming employee health and wellbeing.
1. The digital mental health revolution
Employee access to health and wellbeing changed dramatically during the pandemic, with remote, digital services becoming increasingly commonplace.
Telehealth consultations with doctors, for example, replaced routine face-to-face GP practice visits – and nine in 10 organisations expect the use of telehealth to grow in the next two years, according to our Emerging Trends survey. Studies suggest there has also been a surge in the use of online mental health services.
With providers already preparing for a shift in behaviour patterns, the ecosystem of digital mental health tools, such as mobile apps, social support networks, online resource platforms and live video therapy services had expanded rapidly in recent times. This disruptive trend is here to stay.
Our Emerging Trends research found that more than two-thirds of employers current offer online mental health services, with a further 20 per cent planning or considering doing so over the next two years. Almost half (47 per cent) provide access to mindfulness, sleep and relaxation apps.
Today’s more sophisticated resources include platforms that offer online surveys and other assessment tools to help employers identify mental health risks and that signpost educational, interactive and clinically-backed e-therapy support – from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) apps to mindfulness and meditation programmes.
R&D in the field of digital mental health continues apace. Emerging tech applications are set to harness the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to offer increasingly personalised solutions that respond to employees’ unique mental wellbeing needs and that help optimise clinical outcomes.
WeAreASSIF, for example, uses AI for voice and facial recognition, checking for voice anomalies and scanning micro-expressions to identify how a person is feeling, before they may even know themselves.
2. The era of the ‘Internet of Bodies’
Wearable devices have become increasingly sophisticated over recent years, a trend that is sure to continue given the high levels of investment in wearable developments. Indeed, the demand for remote health monitoring is expected to accelerate in the wake of the pandemic.
Our research revealed that 17 per cent of employers currently offer wearables and remote monitoring fitness apps, with a further 23 per cent planning or considering doing so over the next two years.
Innovative wearables with new sensors are coming to market, enabling streams of health data to be monitored and shared with clinicians. This proliferation of connected health tracking has led to the term the ‘Internet of Bodies’ being coined.
Biometrics researchers, for example, are developing small wearable patch devices that can record a range of data including respiration rate, skin temperature, blood pressure and posture.
These devices can release drugs into the skin to make it sweat, and then examine the sweat itself for chemical substances such as lactate, caffeine and alcohol.
According to studies carried out at the UC San Diego Center for Wearable Sensors, despite their small size, these technologies can perform as well as specialist equipment such as blood pressure cuffs and breathalysers.
Electrocardiogram (ECG) technology within wearables is also being developed to not only monitor a person’s heartbeat but to also identify them and to then provide medical grade health and wellness insights.
Collectively, such devices have the power to give greater healthcare control to individuals and clinicians and will open the door to more personalised employee health and wellbeing initiatives for businesses.
3. Light technology to reduce sleep disruption.
Research has suggested that sleep deprivation is costing the UK economy around £40 billion a year.
Light has been identified as an integral ingredient to our sleep-wake cycles and highly personalised light diets, prescribed following detailed digital tracking and monitoring, could help drive behavioural changes to minimise costly sleep disruption among employees.
LYS Technologies, for example, has developed a wearable device that integrates light sensors to measure the intensity and colour of light in any given environment. It does this by mimicking the functioning of human eye photoreceptors. The light data is then transmitted to an app, which uses algorithms to digitally analyse it and offer feedback and advice to the user.
Such information can be used to underpin corporate ‘Light Diet’ programmes and signpost interventions such as improvements in the office environment, including the introduction of human-centric lighting technologies that help regulate our bodies’ circadian rhythms.
4. VR: a different world
Virtual Reality (VR) is not a new technology, but it is only now that it is starting to spill over in a meaningful way into healthcare.
VR is empowering employees to take control of their own health issues from the comfort of their own home. What’s more, it is also reducing the need for face-to-face medical consultations, eradicating the long wait times that can often be experienced while speeding up the recovery process.
For those workers who need physical therapy and rehabilitation, medical professionals can set tailored exercises that can be completed using a VR headset. The technology can also be used to help employees with mental health problems and addictions. MindCotine, for example, uses VR Mindful Exposure Therapy, which puts smokers in real-life situations to help them overcome cravings.
What’s more, VR can have an important role to play in pain management. At St George’s Hospital in London, VR has been used by patients before and during wide-awake surgery, transporting them to exotic locations featuring relaxing scenery, such as beaches and waterfalls. All reported that their hospital experience had been improved, 80 per cent felt less pain and 73 per cent reported feeling less anxious. As a consequence, the need for sedatives or general anaesthesia (given due to the anxiety felt by patients) is reduced.
VR can also help both businesses and medical specialists understand more about an employee’s health condition. From macular degeneration to Alzheimer’s Disease, VR can let the user explore life with a health issue and see things from their perspective, helping to increase empathy and improve care.
5. Gene genie: Genome sequencing and personalised medicine
When scientists mapped out the human genome for the first time in 2003, the door opened to a deeper understanding of medicine.
Genome sequencing – the process of determining the order of the information in DNA – can now be conducted within a day and is paving the way to personalised medicine.
Genetic code carries valuable information that can help inform how individuals might develop diseases, such as cancer, and how they might react to specific medications.
This information is set to be increasingly used, alongside environmental and lifestyle factors, to help signpost more personalized medical treatments. Some patients may be more predisposed to high cholesterol, for example, or be less able to metabolise certain medicines.
Genomic science and technology also have the potential to target cancer treatments based on the DNA of a tumour, instead of its location in the body.
As genomic medicine becomes more affordable and accessible, personalised health advice that draws upon genetic data may have an important role to play in the future of employee healthcare and become a common component of corporate health and wellbeing programmes. Our Emerging Trends survey found that one in 10 organisations already offer genetic screening to help assess the risk of cancer, with 18 per cent planning or considering doing so over the next two years.
As things stand, genomic science advancements are being driven by the public sector, with the NHS Genomic Medicine Service (GMS) committing to sequencing 500,000 genomes by 2024 and planning to integrate genomic medicine into routine public healthcare.
According to Professor Dame Sue Hill, the Senior Responsible Officer for Genomics in NHS England, developments in the pipeline include whole genome sequencing for children with cancer and children and adults with a suspected rare disease.
“This will fundamentally change how we think about disease and lead to faster and more comprehensive accurate diagnoses and more tailored and effective treatments for patients,” she said.
“Understanding the role our DNA plays in disease holds the key to finding treatments for conditions we know about and for those we are yet to discover.”
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Digital detox: 8 easy ways to take back control of your tech!
Technology can make our lives easier and enable us to work more flexibly and efficiently, but it can also increase the risk of us being constantly ‘switched on’, making us tired, less motivated and more susceptible to burnout or other stress related conditions.
It is important to find the right balance between using technology and consciously disconnecting from it so we avoid cognitive overload which can negatively impact our wellbeing and performance. Here are some tips to help you manage your technology, rather than your technology managing you.
Here we have 8 simple ways regain a balance and take back control of your tech.
The future of telehealth
The pandemic has seen a dramatic rise in the use of telemedicine but what does the future of telehealth look like and how will it impact HR professionals?
Telemedicine may have hit the headlines in recent years, but it took a global pandemic to shine the light on its true efficacy and potential.
With most face-to-face consultations revoked to help stem the spread of the virus, physicians and patients have had to turn to alternative ways of providing and accessing healthcare – and telemedicine has filled that gap.
The pandemic has forced healthcare providers’ hands and has accelerated the journey to telehealth becoming the ‘new normal’.
According to a Willis Towers Watson survey, two-in-five (39 per cent) employers have provided, or expanded, access to telemedicine during the pandemic – and a further 19 per cent are planning or considering the move(1).
In fact, Deloitte predicts that the percentage of virtual doctor visits across the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries will rise to five per cent during 2021 – equivalent to around 400 million consultations. This compares to just one per cent in 2019(2).
For employers, telemedicine brings a multitude of benefits. Used appropriately, it can help reduce healthcare costs, increase productivity and boost employee engagement.
Research has found that online GPs could help UK businesses save up to £1.5 billion by reducing the time employees spend travelling to appointments(3).
Here we look at the top three upcoming trends in the future of telemedicine.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
There was once a time when the term ‘AI’ conjured up a dystopian image of a future overrun with thinking robots. Fast forward to today, though, and AI has blended seamlessly into our daily lives, becoming an expected enabler, from asking Alexa for the time, flicking through personalised Netflix recommendations or having our search terms filled in by Google’s predictive bot.
AI is also becoming increasingly influential in the healthcare sphere, especially in telehealth, where it can help healthcare providers to enhance remote patient services and make processes more efficient and streamlined, as well as increasing patient empowerment.
AI-based chatbots, or virtual assistants, for example, can now take a patient through an initial health questionnaire. They can then deliver relevant medical advice – go to bed or to go to hospital – or bring a human doctor into the mix, should the AI bot algorithms deem it necessary. This intelligent symptom checker not only saves the employee time, but also reduces the cost for employers paying out for unnecessary trips to the doctors.
In virtual consultations, machine-learning algorithms that have been integrated with telemedicine solutions can analyse a patient’s data to provide a more accurate diagnosis, as well as treatment. AI can also dynamically change questions throughout a consultation based on the patient’s response, further helping to deliver a precise diagnosis.
As AI software processes data faster than a human ever could, it can quickly identify health problems before they get worse. For example, one tech company has created an app and a mobile device with attachments, such as a stethoscope, otoscope and tongue depressor. Doctors will then guide patients through examinations in the app, with the AI-powered features helping to automatically detect abnormalities in places like the lungs, alerting the doctor and patient.
AI can also be used to analyse patient-uploaded photos, whether that’s checking for rare genetic diseases in photos of faces, looking at chronic wounds, checking skin lesions for cancer or examining the retina to check for possible indications of diabetic retinopathy.
Virtual reality (VR)
For employees who need physical and occupational therapy, the pandemic has meant less access to vital therapy appointments, leaving some patients without professional care and trying to manage their recovery themselves.
However, they could soon find themselves benefiting from remote rehabilitation sessions through a virtual reality headset, helping clinicians to support managed home recovery from afar.
A headset is sent to the patient at home, where clinical workers will be able to remotely control what therapy is shown via the headset. The data from body movements can then be regularly monitored and analysed by the clinician and the therapy amended as and when.
VR can also support those employees experiencing or recovering from addiction – something we may see more of post-pandemic following the months of social isolation. For example, one tech firm has developed a VR smoking cessation programme for employees, helping businesses to improve productivity and cut costs.
In virtual sessions, VR can also be used to help doctors explain health issues to patients through 3D interactive models, giving a more thorough explanation than just a verbal account. This can help patients to feel more knowledgeable and could potentially speed up the process of choosing which treatment to take.
Augmented reality (AR)
The term ‘augmented reality’ was coined way back in 1990, but it was only recently that AR made it mark with smartphone and smartwear technology, such as Google Glasses.
Instead of being immersed in a whole new world like with VR, AR superimposes computer-generated images onto a person’s real-life view.
In a telehealth setting, AR is increasingly being used via smart glasses that can bring up electronic medical records on demand. This means when in a virtual consultation, doctors are able to chat to patients while having the patient’s e-notes directly in their line of sight, providing a more efficient experience.
In the wider medical world, AR is bringing more benefits to medical professionals. An AR-focused start-up has developed technology that allows surgeons to see a patient’s anatomy through skin and tissue. Another company, is making nurses’ lives easier by using a handheld scanner to show where a person’s veins are located in their body. AR is also helping to train medical students, with the first operation 360-degree live-streamed to more than 55,000 trainees.
What’s next in healthcare?
Technological innovations and faster connections from 5G are having a huge impact on the entire healthcare system, not just telemedicine.
Hospitals are looking to discharge patients as quickly as possible and use wearable biosensors and smart watches and smartphones to monitor health issues, such as heart conditions, and vital signs, like blood oxygen and skin temperature, from afar.
Surgeries are being livestreamed through AR to specialists ‘virtually scrubbing in’. The remote surgeons have access to ultrasound images and x-rays, as well as being able to ‘point’ with AR hands. This new system allows specialists to be on-hand and to help before, during and after the operation without having to waste time travelling – especially those experts overseas who are needed for complex surgeries.
Medical robots are also being used to help surgeons with operations remotely, demonstrated recently by a hospital in Italy, where surgeons operated on vocal cords from almost ten miles away. These sci-fi-esque helpers can also keep track of their own battery life, heading back to a charging station when necessary.
5G-based ‘smart city’ technology can also automatically inform hospitals of a patient’s impending arrival in an ambulance. Not only does this allow them to get a bed prepared, if there is a integration with electronic medical records, it also enables them to prepare the right medical set-up based on the patient’s existing conditions and allergies. Should the hospital be busy and not have any beds, the technology can even direct the ambulance driver to another hospital with availability.
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Supporting carers in a multigenerational household
With multi-generational living on the rise, Willis Towers Watson considers how businesses can support their ‘sandwich carers’.
Multigenerational living has been on the rise in recent years.
Soaring household costs, pressures on family finances and concerns over loneliness and isolation among older people have combined with an increasing cost burden for elder care.
The Covid pandemic has also served to heighten awareness of the risks of cross-transmission within care homes. As a consequence, in our post-Covid world we can expect to see the numbers of people taking over the caring responsibilities for elderly relatives continue to rise in the months ahead.
At the other end of the generational spectrum, soaring house prices has made it notoriously difficult for young people to get on the property ladder. These factors have combined to increase the number of homes accommodating three, or in some cases, even four generations under one roof.
The case for supporting employee caregivers
The cohabitation trend can not only result in more employees caring for elderly family members, but it can also lead to some taking on extra childcare responsibilities.
Juggling work and caregiving, for young or old, can put enormous physical and emotional strain on employees and, in some cases, can lead to burnout. The pressures can become all the more pronounced for ‘sandwich carer’ employees – those who find themselves regularly looking after the needs of both children and elderly relatives.
Furthermore, the strain on workers in multigenerational households can, in some cases, be exacerbated for those whose homes have also become their working environments – a trend accelerated in no small part by the Covid 19 pandemic.
Current estimates suggest there are around five million people in the UK combining working and caring responsibilities. With this number set to rise further, HR teams should ensure they have appropriate support systems in place to help relieve the burden these workers face.
By doing so, they will not only be taking a best practice approach as a responsible employer, but will also be helping to improve business outcomes by reducing levels of sickness absence, boosting employee morale and productivity while improving recruitment and retention – keeping that all-important talent pool in their workplace.
Unlocking the door to open communication
Taking stock of a workforce to identify the caring pressures facing employees, and how these differ among different generations and demographics, is an important first step to developing a strategy for addressing the issue.
And at the heart of all stratagems to support the emotional and psychological wellbeing of those feeling the burden of their responsibilities should be an open and honest corporate culture.
Employees should feel comfortable disclosing details regarding their personal home environments, the pressures they face and asking for help when they need it most.
A clear policy that reinforces the company’s commitment to supporting carers, including relevant benefits and flexible working arrangements, should be established and circulated to help reassure employees and encourage this open communication.
Training for line managers is also key part of the process to enable them to fully understand the implications of caring responsibilities, to communicate effectively and to appropriately help. This training is fundamental to establishing meaningful two-way dialogue and should, in turn, help employees to feel more supported and less guilty about balancing their work and caring duties.
For large organisations, internal peer support networks that facilitate carers connecting and engaging with one another to share knowledge and experiences, whether via face-to-face meetings, workshops or social media groups, can also prove beneficial.
A spotlight on childcare
The number of working mothers has increased dramatically over past two decades, shining a spotlight on business support for working parents.
The Covid pandemic, which forced many working parents to increase their childcare responsibilities, has brought the issue into even sharper focus. Some have found themselves working early or late into the evening to balance their work and care duties.
The financial burden of childcare can be considerable, and it can also be time-consuming to arrange and manage. Employers, however, can support working parents by offering onsite daycare and crèche facilities or, if this is not feasible, by offering schemes that help subsidise the burgeoning cost of childcare.
Family-friendly working hours should also be a priority.
Flexible working arrangements
Although any employee that has worked a minimum of 26 continuous weeks for their employer has the right to request flexible working, policies and initiatives that go above and beyond this statutory entitlement can have a significant impact in easing the demands on employees’ time and the impact on their wellbeing.
Employers have the legal right to turn requests down and make a case for flexible working having a negative business impact – but this can prove detrimental to both parties and ultimately lead to staff quitting their employment.
Flexitime, remote working and condensed hours, have important roles to play in allowing carers to structure their working time around their caring commitments.
Flexible leave, meanwhile, can help carers manage any unexpected crises. While this may be taken on an unpaid basis, employers should consider ways they can continue to pay staff and enable them to make up the time at a later date.
Addressing the mental health challenge
Stress, anxiety, financial worries, and lack of sleep are commonly reported concerns among workers shouldering caring responsibilities.
Consequently, while mental health support has become a matter of increasing focus for all employees, it must be front of mind for this particular workforce demographic.
Stress assessments for these employees can help in identifying the type of work adjustments and support that is most needed.
Financial education programme, for example – covering everything from benefits, such as share plans and pensions, to tax planning and savings strategies – can help by enabling the ‘squeezed middle’ to better manage and make the most of their money.
Eldercare benefits, meanwhile, such as access to helplines and specialists who can advise on, and manage, the needs of relatives with specific health conditions such as dementia, can also play a role in helping to relieve the mental burden.
Moreover, counselling sessions, in the shape of confidential support from trained mental health professionals, will offer more than just coping and management techniques, they can help affected employees to better understand the options and support services that are available to them.
Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) offer an extremely valuable tool in this regard, providing access to experienced counsellors and telephone helplines to help address a wide range of mental health and care-related issues. Employees can use the services for themselves or their families and significantly, they are available 24/7, making them accessible whenever convenient for busy carers who are invariably in need of support that extends beyond the workplace.
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With wellbeing increasingly dominating the HR calendar, we thought a checklist of key dates for HRs might be useful.
From Time to Talk day to National Work Life Week, we’ve researched all this year’s key health and wellbeing dates – so you can leverage them to promote the health and wellbeing message.