Could digital technology be used to deliver better health and safety for seafarers? That's the question being examined in a major EU-funded project which seeks to improve at-sea healthcare. ANDREW LININGTON reports…
Good progress has been reported on the four-year e-healthy ship project, which was launched in 2017 to develop innovative technologies for helping seafarers get quick and easy access to vital information about health and medical issues.
The ultimate goal of the €1.86m initiative is to develop an onboard electronic platform – centrally accessible through PCs, tablets and phones – to enable seafarers to get advice and support with such things as emergency care, medical treatment, vaccinations, hygiene, training and nutrition.
It is hoped the platform could cut paperwork and simplify onboard documentation requirements, as well as helping to open up telemedicine capabilities.
The initiative is supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the funding programme of the Hamburg Ministry of Health and Consumer Protection, and is being carried out by a team of occupational and shipping medical experts, software developers and shipping companies.
In the ﬁrst phase of the project, researchers carried out shipboard studies onboard two containerships and a bulk carrier, assessing seafarers' needs and examining their health, nutrition and ﬁtness levels. The work has involved the collection of such data as heart rates, blood and skin condition, UV exposure, the use of 3D technology to track activity and movement patterns during work and leisure periods, the monitoring of daily food intake, and sleep duration and quality.
Crews are being asked to complete anonymous questionnaires about wellbeing and mental health. The results should show the levels of knowledge about health topics among different cultural groups onboard, enabling scientists to develop targeted health-related promotional materials and to determine which modules will be most relevant on the IT platform.
The project has a major focus on stress and ﬁtness and one of its core aims is to provide seafarers with training and support to cope with the intense demands of their work as well as addressing the impact of factors such as noise vibration and separation from family and friends.
Researchers say they want the project to empower seafarers – giving them greater control over shipboard health, reducing the administrative burden and offering e-learning opportunities – and they are planning to produce a range of training materials designed to motivate seafarers to develop a greater awareness of nutrition exercise and ergonomics.
PD Dr (Med) Marcus Oldenburg from the Institute for Occupational and Maritime Medicine (ZfAM) is one of four researchers visiting the three ships taking part in the project and he underlined the importance of improving seafarers' health. 'There are long and hard-working days and exhausting night shifts,' he pointed out. 'Often the work has to be done under time pressure due to port stays, tides and loading.'
The system will be available as a cloud and web-based solution that can be accessed any time and from any device as well as an offline application installed onboard vessels
Dr Dorothee Dengler also from ZfAM added: 'Long absences from home and limited communication opportunities among other things make it difﬁcult for seafarers to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Behavioural prevention such as stress management relaxation and sleep competence strengthens seafarers in this situation and increases their resilience.'
The researchers recognise the challenges posed by shipboard connectivity limitations and another core aim is to produce technical and content-related design speciﬁcations that will ensure the onboard platform can prove functional and reliable in a variety of circumstances. Experts are looking into the idea of developing the system in a modular way so shipping companies can adapt it to their speciﬁc needs and technical requirements.
The idea of using short standardised protocols for telemedicine communications between ship and shore is also being explored and a later stage of the project will involve testing the e-health platform on four selected ships. The project team want to see how the platform will be used over a 10-month period by masters and ofﬁcers and to identify any elements that need to be modiﬁed.
As well as ZfAM partners in the project include the shipping companies Peter Döhle and Reederei Roth and softare developer Hanseaticsoft.
'The system will be available as a cloud and web-based solution that can be accessed any time and from any device as well as an offline application installed onboard vessels. This way seafarers always have all information at hand even if there is no internet connection available. Hanseatisoft CEO Alexander Buchmann pointed out. '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 said the project will establish a 'central pool' for seafarers to manage illnesses onboard as well as administering medications. Crew members will be able to access the platform independently, enter cases of illness, look up appropriate medicine and manage stock in the ship's medicine chest.
Dr Oldenburg said the researchers recognised that it would be a big challenge to gain the attention, interest and trust of the crews – but they have been delighted that participation rates have been as high as 95%.
'It is emphasised that every part of our research is entirely voluntary and all collected data is treated asolutely conﬁdentially,' he added.
'However after ﬁnishing the third examination aboard I can conclude that the crews of the three test vessels cooperated extremely well, offered us deep insights into their daily life, supported our work and tried to make our stay onboard as comfortable as possible.'
For more information visit the e-healthy ship project website (website available in German and English versions)