Could smart meters contribute to a transformation in health and care?

By John MacNeil

One of the most exciting aspects of the ongoing smart meter roll-out is that this upgrade of our national energy infrastructure enables new innovations and services to be built around the data generated. Smart Energy GB and the UCL Energy Institute recently published a report that explores the potential uses for this energy data in health and care.

There is a growing focus within our health system on providing the best possible care for people in the familiar environment of their own homes. Whether individuals have a long-term condition or are vulnerable in other ways, there is a great deal that technology can already offer to aid and support daily life. Many of the core benefits of smart meters will offer big improvements to vulnerable householders, leading to greater control over their energy use and a better understanding of costs. Every household in Britain will be offered a smart meter, accompanied by an in-home display showing near real-time energy usage in pounds and pence.

For pre-payment customers in particular, the option to top up credit at the click of a button or over the phone will greatly improve the situation for people who in an analogue, pre-pay world have to top up at the shop. However, there is the potential for an even bigger prize if the rich stream of energy data generated by households can be harnessed. That’s why we asked the team at the UCL Energy Institute to review how academics and businesses are starting to use energy data in healthcare. Its report, Energising Health’ presents the findings and makes suggestions on how this cutting-edge field of work might develop, as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

One of the biggest opportunities identified is the ability through energy data to monitor and analyse behaviour and activity with, of course, the consent of householders. For instance, if there were no signs of electrical usage or heating in the house of an elderly person, a text alert could be sent out to a carer or trusted relative suggesting that they check up on them. There are already telecare products on the market offering this service, but by installing smart meters into every house in Britain we might create the platform to support future services at large scale and at good value.

Through developing this further, granular-level energy data can be analysed to recognise behavioural patterns and assist with monitoring particular health conditions. A partnership between Mersey Care NHS Trust and Liverpool John Moore’s University is currently using smart meter technology as a non-intrusive way to monitor the progression of dementia patients. They are exploring how this could work with a wide range of other conditions where irregular activity might indicate support is needed.

The report also explores the possibility that large-scale public health research could be informed by smart energy data in aggregate form. This might be of particular interest to public bodies looking to target interventions such as energy efficiency measures or even noise pollution mitigation based on very detailed energy use mapping.

As with many developments in the sphere of big data and public policy, the key will be to ensure that regulation enables both consumer confidence and innovation. The smart meter system has high levels of protection for individuals’ privacy and security, and Smart Energy GB research shows very low levels of concern about privacy in relation to smart metering. Many individuals are happy to share personal information via smart phone, social media and fitness trackers, but last week’s ruling by the ICO on a Google Deep Mind trial highlights the challenges for both innovators and health organisations in getting this right at scale, and in a particularly sensitive area. The UCL research team has recommended that further trials of energy data technology are done in clinical contexts, and across disciplines and systems to avoid silo thinking.

The smart meter roll-out is transforming the way that millions of householders use and pay for energy, and the consequences of this upgrade for our national infrastructure could be far reaching and impact upon wider aspects of our lives, beyond our energy use. There is a rapidly growing digital health sector in Britain, and with its reputation for technological expertise and innovation, Scotland is well-placed to lead the way in making the most of the smart future ahead.

John MacNeil is head of policy and communications, Scotland, for Smart Energy GB.

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