When technology is mentioned in the context of health care, it is often received as an impersonal, profit- or regulatory-driven interface between a provider and patient. If designed – hopefully with a clinician involved – with the purpose of actually solving a problem, digital technology will ultimately gain favor. Examples of such tools include links and apps which provide reference information. Epocrates and doximity on the provider side and WebMD on the consumer/patient side are prime examples. There are increasingly more digital tools for patients and caregivers to help them improve self-participation in their health care as well as to navigate the system. The challenge in the health care technology space is to make people (both providers and patients) aware of them, to facilitate use, and to incorporate relevant and actionable data seamlessly into the patient’s electronic record. Technology needs to be designed in a way in which it conforms to the clinical work flow between the patient and provider. I will give examples of available tools that can improve a patient’s daunting journey. I do not have any financial or other affiliation with any companies mentioned.
1. They can help prepare for the office visit.
I don’t know why, but patients have evolved a belief that they need to present a self-diagnosed condition at the office visit. They often feel guilty not providing the diagnosis. I believe firmly (and tell patients) that their responsibility is to know when something isn’t right and to call the provider. Notwithstanding this, I encourage patients to do online research into their symptoms. Tools found at FamilyDoctor.org, the Mayo Clinic Symptom Checker, or iTriage can help frame thoughts or prompt a discussion with a caregiver prior to a visit, which can then serve as a foundation for the office encounter.
2. Patient education content.
The term “patient engagement” is used commonly today. It implies the active participation of the patient in health care and disease management. Many believe that patient engagement should be focused on medication adherence. While this is critical, it remains a reflection of a patient’s understanding of diagnosis; long-term treatment goals (which need be personalized per a discussion about them); and the components of the treatment itself, which include lifestyle changes and nontraditional pharmacologic therapies as well. Seeing disease through a patient’s eyes (empathy) is the key to good relationships that in turn promote engagement. Excellent digital patient education tools are now available for download and review by patients and caregivers. They explain diagnoses, tests, procedures, and medications. Some are proprietary and made by pharmaceutical and medical device companies, while others are produced by third-party companies that allow the provider to white label the product or even customize the content. One excellent example is Liberate Health. (Ed. note: This publication’s parent company has a relationship with Liberate Health.)
3. Social media.
This is where the patients and caregivers are. It follows then that social media is where providers should be. There are some excellent online patient communities that contain disease-specific groups. Examples are Smart Patients and Treatment Diaries. Social media is a big part of motivating patients and giving support to them and to caregivers. It allows for information exchange in a convenient, relaxing, and nonthreatening setting. While skeptics might question the validity of medical information and advice on these sites, I would say that encouraging patients to participate shows empathy. If a disclaimer is offered stating that this is not a substitute for a health care provider, it can be a significant source of support.
4. Connections to caregivers.
Caregivers are left out of many digital health tools. A good working definition of a caregiver is “an unpaid individual (a spouse, partner, family member, friend, or neighbor) involved in assisting others with activities of daily living and/or medical tasks.” About 29% of the U.S. adult population (65.7 million) provides care to someone who is ill, disabled, or aged. Other statistics about caregivers are more impressive. Health and medical apps are promising tools that can be offered to patients. The rubber has yet to fully meet the road in this arena for a few reasons, many of which are tied to the reputation, usability, and priorities of present electronic health record vendors who represent the face of digital health technology to most physicians and other health care providers. However, there is little denial that they (and other mobile health tools) will play an important role in health care’s future. Both patients and caregivers have expressed what is desired in a mobile app. As aging at home becomes a necessary goal of health care from social, financial, and societal standpoints, caregivers will assume an even greater portion of care.