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Disruptive technology and emerging trends in employee healthcare

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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.”