UK searches for tech innovations to boost occupational health
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When Mathew Norbury saw the UK government advertise a £1mn prize fund for innovations in occupational health, he thought his tech start-up would be an ideal applicant.
Norbury founded and runs FC Labs, which develops sensors to determine whether a worker is losing focus, and gives them a “nudge” via an app with the aim of helping them avoid accidents or errors.
The sensors, usually inserted in hard hats, use near-infrared light to measure blood flow and oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which helps regulate focus, actions and emotions.
And Norbury’s hunch proved correct: a winning bid means FC Labs will receive £96,000 from the UK fund, which it plans to use on developing a wrist-worn version of the technology.
“The ‘nudge’ provided by the insights we provide — alongside self-assessment and signposting tools in our app — will improve self-awareness of potential issues and encourage the exploration, and take-up, of occupational health support,” he explains.
The government fund asks applicants to demonstrate “how they would deliver improvements to occupational health, harnessing technology such as artificial intelligence or data collection, to deliver better health outcomes for employees of SMEs”.
It is part of a UK government push to widen access to occupational health services and meet increased demand for them. Occupational health professionals aim to determine the impact that work has on staff, and ensure that employees remain fit to undertake their roles. At present, only about half of the working population has access to occupational health services.
“Good occupational health helps to open up a wider workforce to employers, and support employees who have a range of needs,” argues Tom Pursglove, minister for disabled people, health, and work. “That is why it is so important that we prioritise innovation that is accessible and usable for employers and staff alike.”
The government’s efforts come at a time when unusually high numbers of people are out of work due to ill health — and as the NHS struggles with record-long treatment waiting lists and lengthy doctors’ strikes.
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Another successful applicant to the fund was Latus Health. It makes a remote health screening device that connects to its Yodha platform.
Aimed at small to medium-sized businesses, this platform enables employees to book appointments and store notes about medicals, or hearing and blood tests. Employees can also have consultations via video calls with a clinician, who will guide them through the relevant screening process and record the data.
“For a long while, the occupational health industry has been calling out to the government to say: ‘Let us be part of the solution’,” says Jack Latus, the company’s founder and chief executive. He says that prize fund schemes, such as the UK’s, are a first step in understanding how government and private occupational health practitioners can work together.
“It’s very much a feasibility fund at this stage with the opportunity, if things go well for the successful bidders in phase one, to potentially have further funding to scale up in phase two.”
Latus believes that too many businesses rely on the NHS to help them get employees back into work when they fall ill, and there would be a better and faster service if it were provided by employers, privately.
However, Kaveh Asanati, a consultant occupational physician and visiting professor at Imperial College London disagrees. He suggests that the government should “consider how occupational health could be funded to be in the mainstream of NHS activities”. For example, GPs and other doctors could refer patients to occupational health services within the NHS.
“SMEs do not have good access to occupational health, so people have no access to options at the moment,” Asanati says. “All [of that] could be refined, but that should be funded by the government.”
He also calls for a benchmarking exercise to compare the UK with countries such as Japan, Finland and Spain — in order to identify ways to improve occupational health services.
Asanati’s view is that the government’s fund for innovative occupational health ideas could serve as a model for other areas of healthcare. By providing funding streams, it has the potential to foster a culture of innovation that addresses evolving health needs and improves patient outcomes.
He says: “Embracing technological advancements and staying updated with emerging trends are crucial for the future of occupational health — enabling more proactive and targeted approaches to protect, and promote, employee wellbeing in the workplace.”