Paging Dr. Smartphone: How Digital Health Affects Patient Care

Posted on: March 18, 2016

written by

Evan Wade

The medical field is undergoing a technological revolution, and many gadgets hitting the market are designed to take tasks out of professionals’ hands.

Sounds kind of strange, right? In a time where you can pull up patient records on your iPad faster than you can say filing cabinet, you’d think the opposite would be true. And while anything that enhances patient participation and engagement is a good thing, the digital health phenomenon has not been without rough patches. All those apps and trackers and other consumer-centric products helping to democratize healthcare can, for providers, be the definition of a double-edged sword.

Digital Health, Digital Autonomy

If recent history is any indication, the best thing healthcare professionals can do is to make the best of all this change, because it’s not going anywhere. PwC says mobile health app adoption doubled between 2013 and 2015, a number that’s likely to increase as gadgets add functionality and the networks supporting them improve. By the same token, an update from ITN says some 66 percent of Americans “would use a mobile app to manage health-related issues.”

That second point is particularly important when considering the broad variety of digital health functions and features available. Diet and symptom tracking, physical activity recording, and medication reminders — tasks frequently handled by real, live healthcare professionals — are just a few of the reasons people use digital health products today, according to the ITN article.

Because of this, the best aspect of digital health for physicians, NPs, and PAs comes down to tracking. From a sheer data-collection perspective, mobile apps and fitness trackers are a reliable, precise way to gather info on a patient’s exercise statistics, eating habits, and medication use, among other figures. That’s especially promising in situations where outside activity plays a large role in the type and level of care given. Instead of worrying about a patient inflating, say, exercise numbers out of pride or fear of “getting in trouble,” a tracker can remove the guesswork from the equation altogether.

That said, patients don’t have to use mobile devices themselves to realize the benefits of digital health. As one example, we recently listed six free ways for providers to seek continuing medical education (CME) through their mobile phones, a testament to the convenience and accuracy digital health solutions can offer to patients and caregivers alike.

The Downside of Digital

Digital health isn’t all sunshine and rainbows for healthcare providers, however. If you’ve ever had to explain why a “second opinion” from a mobile app isn’t as trustworthy as trained, personal care, you know why: Sometimes, a patient’s lack of understanding and access to high-level information can make for a frustrating experience.

In fact, it’s fair to say encounters with “Dr. Smartphone” are a big reason for the mistrust care providers show consumer-focused digital health products. Doctors and other providers are more than list-checkers and script-writers; they’re highly trained medical professionals. The idea that an app somehow reduces their utility is understandably insulting. That’s especially true when they feel the patient puts more stock in the product in question than in a real, live human’s training and expertise.

Dr. Smartphone Is in the House

That, combined with the usage data mentioned earlier, can paint a scary picture for physicians who won't want to fight smart devices for patient attention. If that mirrors your concerns, worry not, because the best possible advice is to heed what the patient says, then continue to do what you’d do if he or she hadn’t brought up a digital health product’s advice. 

It all comes down to patient psychology. Instead of telling the patient these products are a good starting point but not a replacement for professional medical advice — something they might ignore or even dismiss as “lecturing” — you’re taking their specific concerns into advisement. Moreover, you aren’t dealing the patient a tacit insult by saying their time and research were wasted — you’re showing them that you appreciate their input, even if your professional conclusion ends up being a little different than what they expected.

Of course, this general advice won’t always be workable. If their concerns are way off base or would result in unnecessary testing or analysis, don’t be afraid to say as much, but give them a specific reason and do your best not to disparage the tools they used. The more you avoid making them feel stupid, the more trust they’ll place in you instead of Dr. Smartphone.

Digital Health: A Tool, Not a Foe

Though it presents unique roadblocks, digital health represents a great opportunity for patients and the people taking care of them. And realistically, we’re just reaching the tip of the iceberg, because the tools will only improve along with the technology behind them.

Adoption rates for digital health products are rising, and that makes this trend one to watch for. If it hasn’t made an impact on your professional life yet, you can bet it will soon.

How do you handle interactions where the patient invokes Dr. Smartphone? Let us know on Twitter @bartonlocums!

About Evan Wade

Evan Wade is a professional writer, journalist, and editor based in Indianapolis. He has extensive experience in news, feature, and copy writing in the healthcare field, with specialties in technology, human-interest stories, and addiction science. Contact him on Twitter: @wadefreelance.

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