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Could smart meters drive a telehealth revolution?

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Smart meters could become a telehealth solution within a few years – helping to reduce the pressure on overloaded healthcare services.

That is according to a new report which suggests that the energy-monitoring devices could double-up as a solution to a number of in-the-home healthcare challenges.

A report, by independent think tank 2020health and commissioned by Smart Energy GB, has reviewed the use of smart meters in the remote monitoring of vulnerable individuals and as part of post-operative or restorative care.

The report also looked at the their potential use in “self-monitoring and safety” and the somewhat Orwellian-sounding “population-level screening and monitoring”.

A key potential use, however, would be for people living with dementia. There are currently around 850,000 people in the UK with dementia, and this is projected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040. The estimated cost of care for this population now stands at around £26bn.

The report suggests that smart meter data could, with consumer consent, improve care for people living with conditions such as dementia, making it easier for more people to live independently in their homes for longer.

Energy use data from smart meters would be fed into a wider system which could recognise patterns of appliance use over time and start to learn people’s daily routines. If the system identified unusual patterns of energy use, it could alert relatives or clinicians that the person may need additional support.

For example, use of kitchen appliances such as the kettle or toaster during the night could indicate insomnia, pain or mental health problems. An increase of energy use in late evenings or at night could indicate ‘sundowning’ syndrome, which is often a sign of progression from early stages of Alzheimer’s to more serious deterioration. Complete inactivity of appliances such as the TV or oven could indicate a fall, stroke or acute illness.

These predictors will be particularly relevant for health and social care, especially when looking at ways to support elderly individuals with health vulnerabilities to live safely and for longer in their own homes, or to help monitor patients following discharge from hospital.

Julia Manning, director of 2020health and member of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Digital Health Council, explains: “We were excited to find that an informal care offering with smart energy technology has already become a reality in Japan. Scaling affordable health and care solutions in Britain is always a challenge but remains urgent.

“Our ageing society indicates a future of much greater healthcare need, and smart meter technology could prove useful in making it easier and safer for people with conditions, such as dementia, to live independently in their homes for longer, delaying transition to the care home setting and providing peace of mind to family and loved ones.

“Harnessing this technology could bring benefits to all: patients, caregivers, family members and healthcare providers across the UK,” said Julia Manning, director of 2020health and member of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Digital Health Council.

Iagan MacNeil, head of policy at Smart Energy GB said: “This new report shows the amazing potential of smart meter data; by installing smart meters into every home in Britain, we can potentially create a future platform to support health services at large scale and in a cost effective way. It could be an efficient and non-intrusive way to monitor an individual’s health, while also helping to relieve pressure on those working in primary care.

“We’re calling for cross-sector innovation and collaboration among our world-class research centres and healthcare providers in order to develop this technological potential. For care providers, innovators and funders alike, now is the time to start thinking now about how energy data can be utilised to support care services.”

Prof June Andrews, Dementia Services Development Centre, University of Stirling and author of ‘Care Homes; When, Why and How to Choose a Care Home’ added: “It is good to see that thinking and research is going into this area. The anxiety that is felt by families of people with dementia living alone is often what precipitates institutional care, and so anything that makes for more sophisticated, but unobtrusive monitoring is very welcome both to the person with dementia and their family”.

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