Digital devices and apps are radically transforming healthcare by enabling providers to monitor patients remotely while also empowering consumers to take better care of themselves through health-related mobile apps and wearables.

The respective technologies for healthcare consumers and clinicians have advanced along parallel tracks, however, with little crossover. Physicians rely on home-based telehealth devices for monitoring patient conditions and managing chronic diseases, while consumer wearables and mobile apps provide users with more basic information about vital signs and activity levels.

But what if a consumer app could function as an intelligent, interactive and proactive digital health advisor — one that not only collects data and provides information, but also communicates with medical, pharmaceutical and insurance databases and networks to empower users?

Leveraging Digital Technology to Improve the Patient Experience

In an article published by The Commonwealth Fund, Drs. Eric C. Schneider, Onil Bhattacharyya and David Blumenthal outline a scenario in which a patient describes or takes a picture of their skin condition for a digital health advisor (DHA) to evaluate. Using medical databases as well as the patient’s electronic health records and pharmacy, the DHA “is able to tell [the patient] that a medication [they] recently started on is likely the cause of [their] rash.” After instructing the patient to stop taking the drug that’s causing the rash and to keep an eye out for further symptoms, the DHA then “notifies the prescriber’s office, requesting that it call [the patient] as soon as possible to recommend a different drug.”

Rather than superseding the healthcare system, DHAs could work within it, using digital technology and interoperability to improve efficiency and encourage people to take an active part in their care. Furthermore, as the article states, “by informing users about health insurance options, available local providers and prices for services, the DHA also could help people select the most appropriate health plan, schedule visits, shop for the least costly medications or lab tests, arrange for home care services and manage deductibles.”

Benefits for Consumers and Providers

As the healthcare industry transitions toward value-based care, consumers are assuming more responsibility and making more choices than ever before. While this can be empowering — consumers are shopping for the best prices and demanding better services from their providers — it can also be overwhelming. Having a DHA to help consumers navigate the shifting healthcare system would lead to better health management and outcomes. A DHA could also serve as the crucial link to keep consumers connected to the healthcare system. This is especially important for the elderly and patients with chronic conditions, which are the most expensive to manage and treat.

Digital health advisors would also benefit providers by streamlining the management of appointments and other patient-related processes such as adding information to health records. Since consumerization and radically shifting revenue models are putting tremendous pressure on providers to manage costs, the savings generated by widespread DHA use could be substantial.

Challenges to Widespread DHA Usage

Though interoperability challenges remain, the technologies required for DHAs are already in use. The primary obstacles, the article’s authors argue, are a lack of clear business models for technology vendors, the absence of policies surrounding their use and “cultural gaps” between key stakeholders in healthcare. According to the article, “Technology entrepreneurs, investors and developers are likely less familiar with the needs of chronically ill patients, the frail elderly and their caregivers than they are with those of the health-and-fitness enthusiasts who’ve been early adopters of many digital health tools. Similarly, consumer-oriented digital companies also may be perplexed by the demands of health care regulators, like the Food and Drug Administration, or the conditions of participation set by providers that bill Medicare, Medicaid or other payers.”

While cultural divides can be persistent, the requirements of a value-based, consumer-centered healthcare system demand innovative approaches and models. In such as system, a digital health advisor could play an invaluable role.

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Christopher Nerney

Chris Nerney is a veteran technology journalist specializing in healthcare technologies, including EHRs, health information exchanges, revenue cycle software, patient portals and wearables. Chris is a major content contributor to HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society), a non-profit organization with more than 61,000 members dedicated to improving the quality, cost-effectiveness, access and value of healthcare through IT. Follow Chris on Twitter: @chrisnerney

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