New EU Project to Improve Health Without Doctor Onboard

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  • An e-health ship project, launched in 2017, is making healthcare easily accessible from smartphones and laptops.
  • Researchers are collecting data about the seafarers’ health condition in its survey phase.
  • With this in place, seafarers can get informations about healthcare situations in no time.
  • This platform will also help in establishing connection between ships and onshore medical facilities.

The EU is changing the way we tackle health and healthcare problems at sea. With its newly launched interdisciplinary project designed to optimise health management on ships without doctors on board, the European Union has took a major step towards addressing the seafarers’ health risks at sea, reports The Ship-Technology.

Why is it necessary?

The last few decades have seen an increased effort to improve health and safety for seafarers. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention compels participating states to ensure that “seafarers’ work environment on board ships promotes occupational safety and health”.

Nowadays, qualified medical officers are responsible for medical treatment and emergency intervention, and are required to pass a 40-hour medical refresher course every five years to meet international requirements.

But with merchant vessels rarely having a doctor on board, gaps in seafarer knowledge regarding nutrition and the difficulty of responding to emergencies at sea means that healthcare management remains an issue.

How digitalization helps?

According to parties involved in the European Union’s (EU) interdisciplinary e-healthy ship project, this is one area where digitalisation can play an important role.

Launched in 2017, the e-healthy ship project aims to adapt and optimise health management on container ships. A number of partners are participating in the project, including the Institute for Occupational and Maritime Medicine (ZfAM), software developer Hanseaticsoft, and shipping companies Peter Döhle and Reederei Roth.

The ultimate goal will be the development of an IT-supported health platform, which nautical officers will be able to access on a central laptop or tablet PC. This platform will provide information and new capabilities via a range of health-related applications, covering the bases of emergency care, telemedicine, documentation, vaccinations, hygiene, training and nutrition.

How is it done?

A four-year e-healthy mission just after its launch will have the interdisciplinary team comprising of Scientists surveying the needs of seafarers, conceptualise and test the IT platform, and evaluate the use of this platform on merchant ships. Scientists are setting out on board four merchant ships to assess the health, nutrition and fitness status of seafarers, as well as the knowledge of culturally diverse crew members with regard to health issues.

Health Risks of Seafarers

Dr Marcus Oldenburg, one of four researchers tasked with going on board the vessels over a 14-day test period, which concluded in mid-July, says that despite many technical improvements during the last few decades, seafarers still live and work in a strenuous environment and are exposed to various stress factors.

“There are long and hard working days and regular as well as irregular night shifts,” he says. “Often the work has to be done under time pressure due to port stays, tides and container loading.”

“Seafarers are still exposed to noise and vibration, and although personal safety equipment is used, physical and psychological stress cannot be sufficiently reduced. Another important stressor concerning mental health is the separation from friends and family for up to nine months or even more.”

Aim of the Survey

According to Oldenburg, the aim of the ongoing surveys is to get a “holistic view of the seafarers’ health conditions” that will enable the development of comprehensive health materials.

  1. This involves collecting data on heart rates, blood and skin condition, activity during work and leisure times, daily food intake, and duration and quality of sleep.
  2. Crews are also being asked fill in different anonymous questionnaires about well-being and mental health.
  3. Data collected from the tests will allow scientists to develop health-related promotional materials, which nautical officers can use to encourage awareness of better health practices.
  4. It will also determine which modules will be most relevant on the IT platform ahead of the test phase.

“This will help see what kind of modules are really relevant, that can really support the officers on board,” says Kristin Apitz, a spokesperson for lead project partner ZfAM.

“We have something in mind and the tech firm has something in mind, but we have to prove if this is really necessary or if this really makes any sense in reality.”

The Digital Platform’s Potential

While the technical details of the platform are still up in the air, its potential lies in two objectives:

  • providing relevant healthcare information to seafarers
  • making it possible to quickly establish a connection between shore and ship in the event of an emergency.

Hanseaticsoft has a distinguished pedigree in developing cloud-based solutions for the shipping industry. Just weeks before the EU approached the company, Hanseaticsoft launched its Crew Portal application to increase transparency and autonomy for seafarers.

According to CEO Alexander Buchmann, “a cloud and web based system’s uniform information is always available and accessible via smartphone or tablet.”

“We can incorporate a lot of the experiences we gathered while developing our own cloud-based system to create a system that is easy to use without any time-consuming training,” he adds. “We think that for the users to accept and appreciate using a solution, it has to be intuitively usable and bring joy.”

Managing illness Digitally

Buchmann says that the goal is to establish a ‘central pool’ for seafarers to manage illnesses on board, as well as administer medications. Crew members will be able to access the platform independently, enter cases of illness, look up appropriate medicine, and manage stock on board.

“To make this possible, we follow a strict cloud-based approach, meaning that there is no need to install any applications,” he says. “Using a cloud and web-based system, uniform information is always available and accessible via smartphone or tablet regardless of time or location. The crew can enter and access all data [by themselves] – leading to increased transparency and independence.”

Larger Prospects

Apitz says that the creation of a digital platform will lead to a move away from paper-based processes, such as the requirement to fill in medical forms manually, and do away with hefty medical books ships are required to have on board.

Most excitingly, the platform could facilitate telemedicine capabilities, which enable better communications between crew on merchant ships and medical professionals onshore.

Addressing Connectivity Issues

However, the present onboard connectivity is a major concern to run such a, data-heavy telemedicine platform, specifically when it comes to video-conferencing with onshore medical professionals. One of the focuses of the ship inspections will be exploring the costs of optimising ship-to-shore and on-board internet connections.

The implementation of an IT platform beyond the remit of the project is still a way off, with the development, testing and evaluation all expected to conclude by 2021. However, from what Oldenburg says about seafarers’ willingness to participate in the project, there’s clearly recognition from the industry that a digital method could be the answer.

Getting The Crews Attention

“One big challenge is to gain the attention, interest and trust of the crew to join our project and to participate in the different examinations and questionnaires,” says Oldenburg. “It is emphasised that every part of our research is entirely voluntary and all collected data is treated absolutely confidentially.”

“However, after finishing the second examination aboard I can conclude that the crews of both vessels cooperated extremely well, offered us deep insights into their daily life, supported our work and tried to make our stay on board as comfortable as possible.”

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Source: Ship-Technology

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