Using smart meters in health and care monitoring systems

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Nicholas Nhede looks at the possibilities of harnessing data acquired from smart meters in health and care monitoring systems.

Have you ever wondered about the use of smart meters outside of traditional applications in smart energy and smart city projects? A new report released by independent, social enterprise think tank 2020health, commissioned by UK government agency Smart Energy GB, explores how smart meters can be used to remotely monitor vulnerable members of society and to improve social services.

The report Smart Future of Healthcare explores barriers to scaling up the use of smart meters in health and care monitoring systems. Traditionally, smart meters are used to help consumers to optimise their energy use and by utilities to ensure accurate billing, grid reliability and to reduce operational costs whilst meeting decarbonisation goals.

As the UK targets to have 85% of consumers equipped with a smart meter by the end of 2024, the report says: “If used as a health and care monitoring technology, the smart meter could soon become a virtually ubiquitous telehealthcare solution. No other ambient assisted living (AAL) or telecare technology comes close for scalability.”

New applications

The report has identified three new applications for smart meters in health and care monitoring:

1. Home monitoring for vulnerable individuals and as part of post-operative or restorative care.

In this case, home energy usage data obtained from a smart meter is used to check the health status, health changes and general wellbeing of a house occupant.

Health deterioration, especially of the elderly, is quickly recognised as it happens and rapid response initiated, the same way the device is used to alert consumers when they are deviating from their typical energy use patterns.

The approach typically involves a process of (remote) non-intrusive load monitoring (NILM) of household electricity consumption, through which the use of various appliances, such as a toaster, microwave, electric oven, kettle and washing machine, can be recognised.

Machine-learning processes build a map of routine behaviours and activities over time, thereafter enabling computerised detection of anomalous behaviour or unexpected inactivity.

For instance, a person’s deviation from normal routine may include the use of a kettle or other appliances during the night, possibly indicating sleep disturbances related to neurological deterioration, arthritic pain or mental health problems.

The increase of energy consumption during late evenings could suggest agitation, confusion and restlessness associated with ‘sundowning syndrome’, a symptom of dementia. Repeatedly forgetting to turn off the oven may indicate memory problems associated with mental health deterioration or mild cognitive impairment.

The system then automatically informs family members to potential changes in the health or wellbeing status of elderly parents who live alone, prompting a follow-up phone call or other action as necessary.

The world’s first use of this approach at a commercial scale has been launched in Japan by Informetics, a subsidiary of Sony in partnership with Tokyo Electric Power Company. A commercial launch in Europe, following field trials, is planned for 2021.

2. Population-level screening and monitoring

Smart meters can be used to mobilise social capital, improve social services and free up healthcare capacity. In this case, smart meter data can be compared with weather data to detect cold homes and unhealthy environments. This in turn enables governments to provide citizens with home energy efficiency retrofits and HVAC systems for better health and living conditions.

Governments can also use smart meter data related to low credit thresholds and emergency credit activation to identify households that are struggling to keep their lights on. This data can therefore be used to provide assistance or improve social services such as grants.

3. Self-monitoring for well-being and safety

Smart home energy management systems (HEMS) provide consumers with self-monitoring services or capabilities which in turn ensure a feeling of well-being and safety to users. HEMS capabilities such as providing users with alerts, for instance when they have left appliances on, provide a sense of wellbeing and safety to homeowners.

Challenges

However, despite the numerous benefits smart meters could present to improving health and care services, the report also identifies several barriers restraining large-scale adoption:

Lack of proposition and collaboration

The concept of using smart meters within the health or care monitoring systems is more than 12 years old, according to the report.

However, slow research progress worldwide, particularly in clinical monitoring contexts, as a result of the lack of collaboration and the unavailability of funding have delayed rollout of the discipline.

Without collaboration spanning computer science, governments, engineering, energy and healthcare, studies remain only theoretical, with little evidence of real-world validity and scalability.

Technological and connectivity limitations

The penetration of smart meters remains slow in the majority of countries and this currently presents a challenge to the use of smart energy data in health and care monitoring.

In the UK, despite rapid deployment, smart meters remain the lesser-used metering technology by households due to connectivity issues. SMETS1 meters installed during the first phase of the UK rollout scheme have sometimes reverted to ‘dumb mode’ when consumers switch energy suppliers.

Other communication challenges include the installation of cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity, especially in rural areas where these types of networks are either intermittent or nonexistent yet crucial for smart meter services.
However, the UK has improved the penetration of Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity in households with elderly people who are the main target for the introduction of the new use case of smart meters.

UK households with one adult aged 65 years and over had the lowest proportion of Internet access – just 59% in 2018 (ONS, 2018b).

Between 2012 and 2018, this has changed with 65+ single-occupant households recording strong growth in internet access by 23% points.

In overall connectivity, the UK was ranked fi fth within the EU in 2018, making the island a perfect setting for researching smart energy data in health and care monitoring.

Privacy and regulation

Consumer data privacy and security remain an issue in the deployment of artificial intelligence-enabled and other smart city business cases mainly by third parties in the UK. In trying to protect consumer data, the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has made this worse, as there now is a thin line between which data third parties and service providers can access and use and not access and not use.

However, there is good news as research by the UK’s Public Interest Advisory Group (PIAG) on access to smart meter data for a public-interest purpose has indicated that although consumers find it a challenge to determine the risk and benefits involved in the use of their data, they consider smart meter data to be less sensitive than other forms of data.

This in turn would open doors for the use of smart meter data by third parties to provide health and care monitoring services.

Recommendations to scale up the use of smart meters in telecare

2020health’s recommendations to government and the utility, health and smart home industries to make the use of smart meters in telecare a ‘reality’ include:

UK regulator Ofgem ensuring robust data security, privacy and consent regulations around the sharing of energy data with third parties delivering care services and data analytics.

The regulator is also urged to make it mandatory that third-party telecare monitoring services using smart meter data register with the relevant property energy provider, regardless of data acquisition method. The energy provider should then ensure discontinuity of third-party access to smart meter data upon any changes in residency, to guarantee data protection of the new occupant(s).

The Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England, the Office for Life Sciences and other institutional funders should support wider clinical trials of NILM techniques in health and care monitoring systems.

The government, UKRI and other funders should consider ways to facilitate cross-sector innovation by creating research funding opportunities that explicitly link energy and health outcomes.

Public-funded research should investigate how smart energy and smart water data may together provide deeper insights into activities of daily living and health risks associated with personal neglect.

The BEIS should consider wider societal applications of Smart Meter Enabled Thermal Efficiency Ratings (SMETER) technologies.

The government and Smart Energy GB should consider public and media awareness campaigns to promote the importance of smart meters in tackling fuel poverty and health inequalities.

To conclude, with the number of people in need of care expected to increase in the UK, investing now in trials of smart meters in the field would help the UK not only improve its social services but also save money.

According to Smart Energy GB, with the number of people living with dementia expected to increase from the current 850,000 to 1.6 million by 2040, the use of smart meters in telecare could help save up to £26 billion ($35.6 billion) used in supporting sufferers each year.