How is Digitalisation Impacting the Occupational Health Sector?
The pandemic has re-defined occupational health.
Occupational health professionals have been integral in helping businesses to function safely alongside public health directives and remain compliant with guidance.
With this has come new ways of working for a profession that has traditionally preferred face-to-face services.
The traditional tasks of managing physical conditions, pre-placement assessments and health surveillance have now been joined by mental health and wellbeing as a broader responsibility for practitioners.
Digital tools were necessary during the height of the pandemic, but how is digitalisation affecting the future of occupational health?
After many months of businesses shifting to remote work, now, hybrid working is becoming the ‘new normal’ for businesses.
With this comes a need for greater flexibility across the board to accommodate the new workforce – at a time when 39% of practitioners believe increased service demand is the biggest challenge they expect to face in 2022.
How will people working in Occupational Health keep up with the development of new technology against the backdrop of an increased service demand?
This increased demand also comes at a time when the workforce of occupational health is only just adapting to the challenges of increased technology use, therefore impacting the uptake of it and the speed at which technology will shape occupational health.
The mental health implications of the pandemic, an aging workforce, musculoskeletal conditions and even skin concerns from hygiene protocols are all likely to increase demand for occupational health services.
Additionally, staffing levels are a huge challenge for occupational health moving forwards.
In summer 2021, vacancies rose above one million for the first time since records began, placing increased responsibility on current qualified occupational health staff.
In the pursuit of overcoming these challenges, digitalisation may be the deciding factor for success.
Utilising data, algorithms and AI
Mobile, wearable, or embedded digital monitoring technologies are rising in popularity as a way to monitor workers in real time.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is being utilised more and more by HR departments, with 70% considering the use of AI applications a high priority for their organisation, particularly for measuring employee performance.
However, for occupational health, the important consideration for this data and its uses should be as one of support, rather than a quick fix – smart monitoring tools can help to improve health surveillance and support evidence-based prevention, rather than replacing the ‘human element’.
With mental health being such a high priority as a result of the pandemic, occupational health practitioners will have to carefully balance the use of technology and its data with workers’ needs.
From exoskeletons to online platforms, digitalisation in the occupational health sector is shifting drastically to meet demand and also pave the way for the future of the sector.
Many of the proposed technology solutions are still in the early stages of discussion, yet this in of itself is promising as it shows a commitment to ensuring that the delivery of occupational health services will remain of a high quality.
For example, exoskeletons – body-worn assistive devices designed to support workers carrying out manual handling tasks to reduce the load on the muscular system – have proven to be useful for military applications or in medical care settings.
However, though exoskeletons could support workers that are struggling with physical impairments and prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders, the long-term physiological and psychosocial implications aren’t yet known.
Similarly, virtual reality (VR) has been considered for the use of immersive training and augmented reality (AR) for contextual information on hidden hazards (e.g., the presence of asbestos or gas pipelines), yet this is dependent on high-quality information that would also have to be up to date.
These developments, though exciting, are examples of the potential future applications for newer technology in the sector under the assumption that these technologies will have positive long-term implications and be beneficial in the long-term, given the associated costs.
What does the future hold?
The reality at the moment is that flexible working is the biggest contributor towards increased digitalisation – a dispersed workforce requires a shift in how occupational health manages workers and also blurs the concept of who exactly is responsible for occupational health.
As with many areas of occupational health, the success of digitalisation will be reliant on how technology is implemented, continually managed, and importantly, how it is regulated.
The use of technology can help to advance the sector considerably through more innovative methods, particularly at a time when the workforce is acclimatising to new ways of working.
Supporting a diverse workforce requires innovative solutions, so long as they are thoroughly examined and regulated.
Do you think that the rate of digitalisation in occupational health is sustainable, or is it a temporary consideration as a result of the pandemic?