British startup: Infection control training with smart glasses?

British startup Imertec is hoping to raise enough money to deliver training and guidance on infection control through wearable glasses.

Hand hygiene is extremely important for preventing cross contamination in hospitals. But despite documentation, not everyone follows the correct hygienic procedures leading to the spread of infections. The NHS is under pressure to improve hand hygiene as it has been found that 300,000 people contract a hospital-acquired infection each year.

Imertec is a new healthcare app startup that wants to solve this problem by using Epson’s Smart Glasses to guide and train employees in safety-critical procedures. The startup has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube to raise money for launching a range of augmented reality teaching apps. We catch up with co-founder Trevor Heley to learn why wearable technology is ideal for training healthcare staff in infection-control procedures. 

How did you come up with this idea?

The founder, Alan Wright has been working in infection control for 16 years and he specialises in decontamination. He and I have been working together for seven years and we collectively started to realise that the real problems were to do with training the staff in infectious control procedures. These procedures are documented but were not being followed. Wright saw the outcome of that because he was clearing up the mess afterwards. So we thought there was something we can do about it. We decided to look at technology options which led us to smart glasses then augmented reality.

How does the Smart Glass deliver training?

We build apps that run on the Glasses that are then used by a member of staff to be trained. The app actually takes them through a particular procedure. The one we have available right now is to do with hand hygiene. It takes them through the correct methods of washing hands. In a hospital environment, if you do not wash your hands correctly, the risk of contamination is great. So we take people through the way you do it which is a series of methods of washing your hands and at each stage we mark that up against the clock and at the end of the exercise we collect the data on the user and then we upload and report on the data. There is a compliance element to what we do. Hand hygiene is the first of many we are going to do.

What has the response been from hospitals/staff?

We wanted to test what issues they face and what things they are looking for. One of the things that Glasses bring in an infection-control environment is a hands-free way of accessing data - and they really like that concept. Walking around with iPads that are usually used by different people spread germs. But they also like the idea that it is a very mobile thing – these give them the mobility so the Glasses can be used in a training room or at a work bench.  

Why do you think Google Glass flunked in the consumer market? Do you think it has found its place in healthcare?

Google Glass got very firmly pitched at consumers and suffered quite a bit of bad press as a result of it. But people within the business environment did see the value in it and I agree with it. The problem was that it wasn’t immersive enough – it was a monocular rather than a binocular approach – in a binocular environment you get a much more immersive experience. It also lacked certain things. The processing power wasn’t that great and it was expensive for what it was. I think it’s good and it will go down in history in encouraging the development of things – but it wasn’t good enough!

What are some of the main issues with the NHS today that you are hoping to solve with wearable glasses?

There is a difference in training and guidance – it’s the latter part which is my endgame in terms of where we are going. At the moment the technology enables us to do it in an immersive way but the technology that will be available soon will enable us to guide people through the process. Once we can do that – then we can really enhance the knowledge base and skills of people working within the healthcare sector.  

Do you see wearables being useful in other areas, such as patient education for example?

Absolutely and in general it’s a brilliant educational tool. In any area of healthcare there is always an element of training and guidance where wearable technology has a place. I think this is really where it is all heading.

What other apps/wearable devices interest you at the moment?

Our development team always keep an eye on the market. We have been building our relationship with Epson for over a year now in terms of talking about what they are doing and understanding where they see things going and what their roadmap is in terms of development. And from what I hear it’s really encouraging.

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What do you see in the future for wearables in the healthcare market? What would you like to see?

My personal view is that it will be commonplace in hospitals to see people using wearable devices, both to treat and advise patients. In a way it’s a very easy environment for wearables to be used because as a patient you are used to seeing doctors and nurses with equipment on them. So it will fit in very well in terms of how they operate.

What do you think about embedded sensors on the body?

There is certainly talk of sensors being embedded in the eye – I stagger to believe how they will do that – I’m sure at some point we will all be cyborgs! As we start to use more processing power the drain on power becomes that much greater – so we might be able to shrink some elements but then you lose access to the energy source – a bit like smartphones they have gotten bigger but also have bigger batteries as well. So if you want to shrink it down and make it less intrusive, then the power source needs to be bigger too. I’m sure all these things will be overcome in time.

Do you see potential for wearable tech in developing countries?

Absolutely – if you think about it, one of the issues they often have in the third world is they have a much more serious problem with infection than we do. But also access to expertise and the ability to train staff quickly to make them useful in their environment is quite attractive to them. The idea of guiding people with something so portable is really quite attractive.

Any other apps in the pipeline? What’s next?

Yes we do. Hand hygiene probably presents the biggest impact. However there are other areas where cross-contamination occur in things like dressing wounds or inserting a catheter or disposing of needles. These are relatively simple things but where cross-contamination happens. So apps that train people on those particular areas is certainly something that we are doing.

But also we are looking at helping the people who have to clean hospital environments as well. So this is more for the janitorial staff where we can point out the hotspots and where they should be cleaning.