Hurricane Sally recently crossed the Gulf of Mexico and landed with torrential rainfalls along the Alabama coast. A little rainfall is important for crops; too much leads to devastation. As physicians, we need data in order to help manage patients’ illnesses and to help to keep them healthy. Our fear though is that too much data provided too quickly may have the opposite effect.
Personal monitoring devices
When I bought my first Fitbit 7 years ago, I was enamored with the technology. The Fitbit was little more than a step tracker, yet I proudly wore its black rubber strap on my wrist. It was my first foray into wearable technology, and it felt quite empowering to have an objective way to track my fitness beyond just using my bathroom scale. Now less than a decade later, that Fitbit looks archaic in comparison with the wrist-top technology currently available.
As I write this, the world’s largest technology company is in the process of releasing its sixth-generation Apple Watch. In addition to acting as a smartphone, this new device, which is barely larger than a postage stamp, offers GPS-based movement tracking, the ability to detect falls, continuous heart rate monitoring, a built-in EKG capable of diagnosing atrial fibrillation, and an oxygen saturation sensor. These features weren’t added thoughtlessly. Apple is marketing this as a health-focused device, with their primary advertising campaign claiming that “the future of health is on your wrist,” and they aren’t the only company making this play.
Along with Apple, Samsung, Withings, Fitbit, and other companies continue to bring products to market that monitor our activity and provide new insights into our health. Typically linked to smartphone-based apps, these devices record all of their measurements for later review, while software helps interpret the findings to make them actionable. From heart rate tracking to sleep analysis, these options now provide access to volumes of data that promise to improve our wellness and change our lives. Of course, those promises will only be fulfilled if our behavior is altered as a consequence of having more detailed information. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Health system–linked devices
Major advancements in medical monitoring technology are now enabling physicians to get much deeper insight into their patients’ health status. Internet-connected scales, blood pressure cuffs, and exercise equipment offer the ability to upload information into patient portals and integrate that information into EHRs. New devices provide access to information that previously was impossible to obtain. For example, wearable continuous blood glucose monitors, such as the FreeStyle Libre or DexCom’s G6, allow patients and physicians to follow blood sugar readings 24 hours a day. This provides unprecedented awareness of diabetes control and relieves the pain and inconvenience of finger sticks and blood draws. It also aids with compliance because patients don’t need to remember to check their sugar levels on a schedule.
Other compliance-boosting breakthroughs, such as Bluetooth-enabled asthma inhalers and cellular-connected continuous positive airway pressure machines, assist patients with managing chronic respiratory conditions. Many companies are developing technologies to manage acute conditions as well. One such company, an on-demand telemedicine provider called TytoCare, has developed a $299 suite of instruments that includes a digital stethoscope, thermometer, and camera-based otoscope. In concert with a virtual visit, their providers can remotely use these tools to examine and assess sick individuals. This virtual “laying on of hands” may have sounded like science fiction and likely would have been rejected by patients just a few years ago. Now it is becoming commonplace and will soon be an expectation of many seeking care.
But if we are to be successful, everyone must acknowledge that this revolution in health care brings many challenges along with it. One of those is the deluge of data that connected devices provide.
There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” Described by journalist David Shenk as “data smog” in his 1997 book of the same name, the idea is clear: There is only so much information we can assimilate.
Even after years of using EHRs and with government-implemented incentives that promote “meaningful use,” physicians are still struggling with EHRs. Additionally, many have expressed frustration with the connectedness that EHRs provide and lament their inability to ever really “leave the office.” As more and more data become available to physicians, the challenge of how to assimilate and act on those data will continue to grow. The addition of patient-provided health statistics will only make information overload worse, with clinicians will feeling an ever-growing burden to know, understand, and act on this information.
Unless we develop systems to sort, filter, and prioritize the flow of information, there is potential for liability from not acting on the amount of virtual information doctors receive. This new risk for already fatigued and overburdened physicians combined with an increase in the amount of virtual information at doctors’ fingertips may lead to the value of patient data being lost.
Dr. Notte is a family physician and chief medical officer of Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health. Follow him on Twitter (@doctornotte). Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Hospital–Jefferson Health. They have no conflicts related to the content of this piece.