What is the health and wellbeing potential of the smart meter?
The smart meter rollout in many countries worldwide is intended to make an important contribution to the reduction of greenhouse emissions. As such, it is already a critical and global health and wellbeing initiative - but the potential health benefits do not stop there.
The use of smart meter data in remote health and care monitoring is a research area of increasing interest and of primary relevance to the uncertain times of COVID19: how to use a new communications infrastructure to remotely support isolated and vulnerable people; how to recognise health deterioration as it happens and respond early; how to mobilise social capital and free up healthcare capacity; and how to keep families connected for peace of mind and wellbeing.
There are certainly multiple health and care monitoring contexts in which smart meter data may prove useful, even lifesaving, as our new report explores.
One monitoring approach aims to support elderly individuals with health vulnerabilities to live safely and for longer in their own homes. The remote, machine-learning system analyses data to recognise important changes in people's use of home appliances, which may in turn signal changes in occupant health or wellbeing.
For example, if a person begins to use a kettle or other appliances during the night, they may be suffering from sleep disturbances related to neurological deterioration, arthritic pain or mental health problems. Repeatedly forgetting off the oven may indicate memory problems associated with mental health deterioration or mild cognitive impairment. Inactivity in the morning may indicate a fall or sudden sickness.
Informal telehealthcare using smart meter data may be available in the UK as early as 2021. In Japan, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has already launched a remote care monitoring service using technology developed by the Sony spinoff company Informetis. The system automatically alerts 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.
Clinical research using smart meter data is evolving slowly. The first clinical study was undertaken by Liverpool John Moores University and Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, in 2016, in which two people with dementia were recruited for a six-month monitoring period. Following promising results demonstrating proof of concept, the team has plans for a 30 month study with 50 participants. In Austria, Solgenium, a research, service and consulting firm, this year completed a phase 1 smart energy data study involving 25 participants to map sleep patterns and track the effectiveness of sleep medication. The firm has already secured funding for a larger, phase 2 study.
At a population level, public health services may soon be able to use smart meter data to identify individuals and families at risk of fuel poverty and/or neglect. Current knowledge of risk is limited, because though energy suppliers can see low energy consumption, they may not have details of a property's thermal efficiency.
Combining electricity and gas meter data, outside air temperature, solar iridescence and accessible housing data, systems may be able to remotely detect poor living conditions. The technology required for such screening may closely relate to that explored in BEIS's SMETER competition, due to complete in January 2021, which is aiming to find solutions for the remote assessment of buildings' thermal efficiencies.
Of course, any screening or monitoring has to be done with occupier (opt-in) consent, in accordance with GDPR. In this new telehealthcare territory, we should be continually reviewing data security, and Ofgem will need to examine and regulate the propositions carefully as energy data crosses over into health data. This includes self-monitoring services, which could be offered by either third parties or energy companies.
For now, progress in clinical contexts requires much greater research funding. What is smart energy's potential in supporting a range of disabling long term conditions – Alzheimer's dementia, Parkinson's, MS, etc – as well as in post-operative care monitoring? Can energy data stand alone as a remote monitoring solution, or does it require fusion with other accessible data?
Additionally, 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. Exploring opportunities to share data securely across existing research data portals such as the Smart Energy Research Lab (energy) and UK BioBank (health) would facilitate this kind of cross-sectoral research.
The opportunities described above and in our report are unprecedented, given that a smart-meter-based telehealthcare approach would build upon an existing hardware and communications infrastructure. No other telehealth solution has ever had such a leg-up, and none comes close for scalability. We simply need more evidence that it can work, and do so safely!