Telemedicine services at sea will become a must after Covid-19

Virtual Medical Services

With the abundance of connectivity today, video consultations are becoming the norm. It’s quick, convenient and highly useful.

In the UK, the NHS has been promoting an app which enables online consultations for people to contact their general practitioner doctor (GP), or other required health care profession. This can range from electronic message, phone or video call, or a face-to-face appointment at a later date if required.

The first wave of Covid-19 has been raging for months, and sadly, the pandemic has greatly impacted many peoples’ lives. One of the key battling grounds for diagnosing this virus has been testing and diagnosing it in the early stages, some countries like Germany and South Korea have done a great job of this. The lessons from dealing with this pandemic will lead to many changes in the future. In particular, large data analyses will lead to radical rethinking by governments charged with medical responsibility. In countries where there is a free-market health industry may take some time to catch up because of lack of central responsibility.

One such change in the maritime industry will be the inclusion of telemedicine services. The shortage of skilled medical workers and a lack of healthcare infrastructure at sea will be evaluated thoroughly in the coming months. We can expect a much larger part to be played by AI in initial diagnosis and preventative medicine. Seamen may be required to wear wrist health monitors (similar to fitbits). Cruise ships, even those who normally carry medical staff, will need to increase their vigilance to prevent another industry shut-down which is likely to last six months or more. Centralised air-conditioning systems will need to be re-evaluated as will many other shared facilities. Many Cruise operators already operate smart-token systems allowing access and monitoring of movement of passengers. It would not be out of order if these tokens also recorded activity and basic health parameters, alerting a medical AI system to any potential problems.

Providing crew welfare services like the ability for seafarers to communicate with their families and friends is now a must. Providing healthcare services to crew will also become a major factor soon. Telemedicine offers practical and valuable solution to address this matter. A potentially ill seafarer can be examined via videolink without a nurse or doctor being there in person providing simple variables such as temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure and blood sugar and blood oxygen levels can be provided automatically. These are all well within the bounds of current technology. These are already available to many land-based patients in this new world of social distancing after lockdowns will be ended in most countries soon. A medical professional or team with an AI sidekick will likely be able to cover a large number of vessels per fleet, providing infections or outbreaks are not too great.

From a crew member’s perspective, one of the biggest concerns of an illness is the uncertainty of what it is and what it could lead to. Alleviating these worries will be a plus for crew wellbeing and will go a long way meet new maritime labour regulations that are soon to be promoted by the IMO/STCW labour regulations and probably the EU too.

We will likely see a host of connectivity service providers, such as Marlink and Inmarsat offering such value-added services in addition to its connectivity ones. From designs already available, some cost effective basic medical equipment will be required with an interface for the patient or administer and a camera for recording purposes. Basic medical equipment could include a blood pressure monitor, electro cardiograph, pulse oximeter, ultrasound device or thermometer. The range of equipment for the customer can easily be adjusted based seafarers’ medical histories and their likely conditions. It is unlikely we will see intensive care units or beds onboard a vessel, or breathing apparatus. If a seafarer does suffer from an acute Covid-19 attack, they would likely be flown off the vessel to a medical facility. By far the most common health emergency for sea-farers is accident, heart attack and stroke.

Valour Consultancy expects nearly 60-70 per cent of commercial vessels with VSAT to adopt telemedicine services in the next two to three years.