(Scanadu Scout vital sign monitor. Source: Scanadu.)
Until recently, wearables have been largely used by consumers to track fitness activity. But wearables are gaining traction in the area of injury prevention and recovery. The recent FDA approval of the Indego exoskeleton, which enables paraplegics, amputees and people suffering from many types of gait disabilities to walk, is the latest milestone in the new world of wearable technology for injured workers.
“Wearables” are not simply technology worn as headphones, a watch, or a pedometer. These devices represent a new age of personal technology equipped with smart sensors to track the metrics of an individual’s daily activities to achieve goals such as losing weight or monitoring an injury. They promote the concept of the “quantified self”—a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on a person’s daily life such as food consumption, mood, blood oxygen levels, sleep, posture, as well as mental and physical performance.
The workers’ compensation industry is embracing wearable technology to reduce, manage, and prevent workplace-related illnesses and injuries. Doctors are starting to write prescriptions for exoskeletons. Claims managers are beginning to think about emerging “smart” technologies not only to deal with a current injury but for the life of a long-term disability. Administrators and attorneys will begin to consider investments in wearable technology when setting reserves and planning for future expenses.
Wearables for Prevention
Currently, wearables are used most often post-injury to track the recovery of an injured worker. However, as the technology continues to evolve, workers’ compensation professionals can leverage wearables in the prevention of injury. Also, the data collected from wearable technology devices can be used to inform recovery plans and long term prevention strategies for injuries or re-injuries. Wearables can provide a real-time window into the capabilities, the health status, the recovery of an injured worker, and into populations of injured workers, far beyond what can be obtained in doctor visits and therapy sessions.
Still finding it hard to imagine that wearables will change the status quo of injury management? Here are a few examples of appropriate use of wearables in prevention and recovery:
- The construction and mining companies can use wearables to alert managers whenever someone enters a dangerous and/or restricted area. Employers would be notified by a personal wearable alarm if someone entered these high-risk areas, preventing injuries before they occur.
- With new smart devices and downloadable software, a person who has lost their voice can communicate for less than $1,000. This is a fraction of the cost of old speech technologies which can cost almost $10,000 and which lack portability.
- Paralyzed patients that have some movement in at least one finger can use wearable technology and devices to give them control in many daily activities they normally would have to ask others to help them with, from driving an electric wheelchair to changing the thermostat or turning on the lights from the comfort of their bed.
- Severely burned injured workers who need to stay out of the sun can use activity and wellness devices to monitor their exposure to sunlight.
- Claims professionals can regularly monitor an individual’s recovery process and avoid extended prescriptions of opioids for a work-related injury or occupational diseases. Effective monitoring of vital signs can reduce potential risks of addiction and the claim veering off course.
The major benefits of wearable technology in workers’ compensation can include:
- Faster recovery and return-to-work
- Improved quality of life for seriously injured workers
- Increases in workplace productivity and wellness management
- Prevention of potential injuries
- Lower overall claims costs
- Providing data to assist in health management
Making Decisions about Wearables for an Injured Worker
Already, the array of products and applications of wearables for workers’ compensation can seem daunting for the adjuster or claims manager. Expert guidance can help them make the right decisions that are suitable for a particular case. Rehab specialists and assistive technology professionals (ATPs) can advise claims managers on which technologies may be most appropriate, taking into consideration the long-term view of an injury, the home environment, and patients’ needs for functionality and independence, their cognitive abilities and technological competence.
Once the right wearable is identified, an ATP will ensure users understand how it and any associated applications work to produce the desired results. An ATP can help identify wearables that integrate and connect, allowing for seamless analysis of data.
The Prognosis for Wearables
What’s in the future? Soon it will become routine to consider wearables as options for rehabilitation, especially for serious injuries. More applications will be deployed in the workplace to avoid injury and to monitor individuals to prevent re-injury. The data generated by these devices will bring a completely new level of coordinated care and real-time medical management that will benefit the worker, the employer, and the payer.
Wearable technology is a strategic investment for the workers’ compensation industry. Whether it is wearable safety devices, smart glasses, bionic prosthetics, exoskeletons, or vital organ monitoring, wearable devices must become part of the arsenal of tools used to mitigate work-related injuries and reduce the frequency and severity of workers’ compensation claims.