The answer to that question depends on what part of the healthcare continuum you look at. When it comes to the actual treatment of disease, few fields can compare with medicine in terms of developing and incorporating new technology. Think of cyber knives, genetically guided cancer therapies, complex new drugs for autoimmune diseases, and the way that surgery has become increasingly less invasive through its reliance on computer imaging and magnification for micro-, laparoscopic, and robot assisted surgery.
On the other hand, when it comes to the use of information technology, healthcare hasn’t been nearly as forward looking as, say, banking, or travel, or even the food industry. How often have you visited a highly respected doctor, located in state-of-the-art facilities, and had to spend half an hour filling out pages of badly xeroxed forms, asking redundant and often irrelevant questions about your personal health history? How often has a member of your doctor’s staff had to spend the time to call you to remind you of an appointment? How often have you wasted time trying to reach your doctor by phone to ask a simple question about your treatment?
Fortunately, the landscape is changing. The industry is starting to engage patients in new ways, using text messaging, video conferencing, and wearable devices to keep patients actively in the therapeutic loop rather than simply at the passive, receiving end. And it’s about time.
According to Pew research:
- 88% of Americans use the Internet
- 73% have broadband service at home
- 95% of us carry a cell phone of some type
- 62% of those have used their phone in the past year to look up information about a health condition.
Those numbers don’t surprise me. As I write this, I am sitting in O’Hare Airport and almost everyone in the departure lounge has a smart phone in his or her hand. Urban legend has it that people under 55 like to text while people over 60 prefer to make phone calls, but if O’Hare is any indication, the over-60 crowd is just as tech savvy as the younger generation. They’re checking the airline app—this happens to be a really bad travel day fraught with weather delays—so that they can text their families and friends with updates. In 2013, Exerpian Marketing found that adults over 55 send almost 500 text messages a month. I’m sure that number is much higher today.
So why not take advantage of this in your practice? Phones and texting allow you to engage with your patients in a whole new way. You can text them appointment reminders (my hair dresser has been doing it for years), let them know if your office is closed due to inclement weather, or notify them that it’s time to make an appointment to have their eyes checked.
Mobile devices can also be used as an electronic physician’s assistant, with apps to guide care and improve outcomes. Imagine if patients could log onto an app on their phones that reminded them of exercises they had to do that day, showed a video of how to do those exercises, recorded that the exercises had been done as well as the patient pain level and other progress indicators . . . and then automatically transmitted all of this information to the physician to become part of their charts. And that all this happened without the time and expense of the doctor’s staff having to make personal calls.
Even better, imagine that you, as the patient, could see your doctor without leaving your home or office. While video technology has been around for a long time, traditional physician practices have been slow to adopt teleservices. This is partly because state regulations and reimbursement policies have not encouraged it, outside of the few online physician services offering quick and relatively easy consults on a “pay now for service” basis. However, more and more states are passing legislation that allow doctors to establish provider-patient relationships through face-to-face interactive, two-way, real-time communication, or through store-and-forward technologies. In addition, some of the laws call out payment policies, and require that care provided via teleservices be billed the same as an in-office visit. I’d personally love it if my doctor adopted teleservices—it would save me the 30-minute drive to her office, the 10 minutes spent parking, the 20-minute delay because she is usually running late, and the 30-minute drive home. Instead, her office could text me when she’s ready and we could engage for 15 minutes via a telemedicine system. A lot better than the minimum 90+ minutes to do an in-person visit.
The final frontier is when healthcare manages to combine information technology with its existing drive for advanced treatment technology. One university research team is developing a tracking device that could be embedded in a pill; the device would activate when the patient took the medication, sending a message to a receiver app, which in turn would create a record for family members or physicians to review. This may initially sound a little too invasive, but think of the boon for families caring for an elder relative—they could verify that the correct meds were taken without having to hire an on-site care-giver or to make daily trips to ensure compliance.
What’s common to all these new technologies is that they recognize that the patient is at the center of the care team, and the information the patient provides must be incorporated into the therapeutic process in real time. The sooner we engage patients in their own care, the better outcomes we will all experience—and the technology that we are already using every day can help us get there. Is the healthcare you are providing hi-tech enough? What technology are you using now to advance your patient engagement?