How Covid Changed the Use of Motion Capture Technology

It was just over a year ago that the world watched as Covid19 started to surge, not realizing the enormous impact the pandemic would go on to have on every aspect of life. Factories and warehouses either closed or were forced to operate at lower capacity, offices sent employees to work from home, schools closed down, medical appointments and surgeries were cancelled. As all of this sudden change was occurring, ergonomic and healthcare experts were keeping a close eye on the overall impact, especially as it related to musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions.

Even before the pandemic, MSK conditions affected 1 in 2 US adults, became the greatest cause of disability worldwide[1] and accounted for more than half of all chronic conditions in adults over 50[2]. Between direct and indirect costs, MSK conditions account for $213 billion and over 365 million lost work days annually in the US[3]. With the number of patient visits to outpatient/ambulatory clinics declining almost 60%[4] and over 28 million elective surgeries (which are typically related to MSK/orthopedic conditions) delayed last year[5] during the height of the pandemic in the US, experts became increasingly concerned. A huge urgency was placed on the need to develop solutions to help people receive the services and care they needed and adjust for this new way of life. Enter: virtual care and motion capture technology.

As the pandemic continued to progress last year the ergonomic and healthcare worlds started seeing a significant increase in virtual care and consultations especially as it related to MSK conditions. At the height of the pandemic, physicians and healthcare professionals such as physical therapists were seeing 50-175 times the number of patients through telehealth compared to before the pandemic with almost 50% of patients using telehealth to completely replace their canceled in-person visits (up from 11% pre-covid).[6] While these numbers are starting to decrease now that states in the US are opening up again, experts say that virtual care is here to stay and will only continue to become more mainstream.

As people have been using virtual services more throughout the past year and a half, professionals in these fields have also been able to see firsthand how efficient and effective these solutions are. Adding motion capture technology to these virtual platforms has only served to further enhance these new types of services.

Motion capture refers to the process of recording movement of objects or people. It has often been used in video game creation to animate characters as well as in movies in order to simulate the look of live-action cinema and make it look as real as possible. The use of motion capture as a tool for biomechanical assessment has also been widely used but has gained even more popularity over the past few years and even more so throughout the pandemic. The types of systems used for this kind of assessment range from those that use reflective markers, wearable sensors, bodysuits, to completely markerless.

One of the earliest benefits this type of technology provided during the pandemic was the ability for professionals such as ergonomists and risk consultants to safely resume their services for clients who continued to work in settings such as warehouses, factories and laboratories. Typically they would visit a worksite and perform a movement and risk analysis of a work task being performed by an employee. Covid was preventing many of them from doing these onsite visits. However, by utilizing technology, they were able to resume their work by safely socially distancing from others while performing their assessments or even avoid going into the worksite in-person altogether by having a fellow employee take a video of a work task and sending it remotely. As professionals continued to incorporate more of these virtual solutions into their workflow, out of necessity, they also began to realize how beneficial these technologies were in general and how they could provide lasting positive change for their clients and business.

Ergonomists for example, started to see significant improvement in their workflow efficiency and realized as a result they were able to better scale their business. No longer were they spending hours on one assessment at a time for one specific work task. They were able to leverage the technology to do most of the manual work (measurements, calculations, etc) for them and with much higher accuracy. Now, their time could be spent on the areas of highest value that produce long term solutions and improve outcomes for their clients- recognizing high risk patterns, providing recommendations for improvement and implementing the necessary changes.

Healthcare also saw some of the highest increases in virtual care including use of motion capture technology throughout the past year as providers were forced to find solutions very similar to those working in ergonomics. This was especially true for physical therapists. They were seeing patients with pain and injuries whose doctor appointments or surgeries were cancelled and needed help getting through the day until they could reschedule. About 6-12 months into the pandemic there was also an influx of people needing care who sustained injuries from situations such as working overtime hours due to staff shortages as well as those who worked long days at home on their computers with poor ergonomic workstations. In each of these cases, too much prolonged strain was placed on the body eventually causing an MSK injury that needed attention.

It soon became very clear that virtual care was producing very positive outcomes and significantly reducing healthcare costs. With this type of care, people could more quickly receive advice and answers to questions without needing to go all the way into an emergency room or urgent care facility. That alone saved time, money and resources that could be spent on other people who may need emergency, life-saving care. For people unable to find a way to physically get to appointments or for populations that were at very high risk during the pandemic and were afraid to leave their homes, this was the perfect way to receive the care they needed while staying safe.

As it relates to physical therapy, motion capture has also been used within the virtual care setting. It can be used for example, to detect a patient’s movement during an exercise and help determine if they are reaching their range of motion goals. Other important movements such as squats can be assessed virtually to determine if there are asymmetries or deficits that need to be addressed that could lead to further pain or injury if left untreated. Compliance with home exercise programs has also been shown to significantly improve with the use of virtual care and motion capture. With this technology a person can visually watch themself perform an exercise. Oftentimes the platform or app they are using will also go through their list of exercises with them, describing how to correctly do them as well as track their progress and document how often they are completing their exercise list. All of this information typically can also be seen by their physical therapist and/or physician so they know their care team can see if they are doing their exercises or not.

More research is being done that is showing the same if not higher levels of care and outcomes when patients receive virtual care versus in person[7]. The pandemic forced many people to start using these kinds of services whether they were planning to or not. The positive impact on both outcomes as well as cost savings has become clear and this type of care is not going away anytime soon. Predictive and preventative care using digital solutions is the next big focus in this space which will only continue to save healthcare dollars and work to continue to make the population healthier.

Kinetica Labs has played a vital role in the workflows and care plans for ergonomic and healthcare professionals. Headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kinetica Labs is a pioneer in the development of sensing and simulation technology for occupational safety and health. Solutions focus on musculoskeletal disorders and utilize motion capture technology that converts a video to accurate posture data that can be used for ergonomic risk and movement analysis without the need for markers, suits or sensors.