Over the past few decades, the modern world has experienced a wealth of technological advancements affecting every corner of our lives. These advancements have extended to the healthcare realm, revolutionizing the field of medicine and paving the way for the field of digital health.
Healthcare has undergone a significant digital transformation thanks to the widespread use of data and the development of communication technologies.
This progression has provided immense benefits to the healthcare sector, for both patients and practitioners. The patient-provider relationship, in particular, has been redefined by digital health as it offers a new means of communication and patient care delivery.
This article will discuss exactly how digital health has influenced the field of medicine with regard to the new age doctor-patient relationship.
Improved Patient-Provider Communication
Digital health has created a new way for patients and clinicians to interact. Traditionally, patients could only interface with their provider and doctor’s office via an in-person visit or telephone.
These communication vehicles can oftentimes be timely and inefficient. Digital health, however, has provided new communication mechanisms that aim to mitigate some of the traditional pain points.
Such advancements include tools including video conference calls (telehealth), online chat, and health-related mobile applications.
One such way that communication between providers and patients has improved is by automated patient reminder messages (PRMs). Today, individuals rely heavily on their smartphones to stay organized and up to date.
By digitizing PRMs, patients can receive reminders via a channel that is most convenient for them, whether it be by phone call, text, email, or even social media notifications. These messages are typically automated. Therefore, they improve convenience for both the provider as well as the patient and provide prompter follow-up.
Appointments and important health communications are less likely to fall through the cracks, thereby strengthening communication between the provider and patient.
Outside of just reminder messages, digital health allows for more interactive platforms where patients can interact with their health data, make appointments, ask clinical questions, and much more.
These online capabilities help to promote a constant line of communication between a provider and patient outside of a typical office visit. By having more frequent interactions, this relationship can be strengthened, and patients are more likely to be retained and take an active part in their health.
Expanding Access to Healthcare
Digital health has also helped to expand patients’ access to healthcare, primarily through telemedicine. While telemedicine is not a novel concept, it has gained traction as an alternative to in-office visits as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
During the pandemic, telemedicine oftentimes supported the diagnosis and treatment of illness and disease while limiting hospital capacity and decreasing the spread of COVID-19 infection. Quickly, however, telemedicine became integrated into many offices’ routine clinical practice, as it is now an option for many types of health visits.
Aside from the pure convenience of telemedicine, it also offers a more accessible option for patients.
Telemedicine addresses many of the barriers to access presently found within traditional healthcare visits. Healthcare access relies on three main variables: entry into the healthcare system, sufficient supply of available services, and timely care. Because of deficiencies across these variables, healthcare access remains a prominent public health issue, with roughly 10% of individuals receiving delayed medical care or no medical care at all.
This statistic more than triples for individuals that live below the poverty line because these individuals experience more barriers to healthcare access. Telemedicine offers a promising solution to expanding access by addressing many of these barriers.
In terms of health system entry, digital health solutions such as telemedicine can increase the likelihood that a patient will be seen by a provider.
Traditionally, a patient may be prevented from seeing a provider by the need for reliable transportation, geographic distance, accessibility, and cost. For example, individuals living in rural areas may live farther away from a doctor’s office or hospital, making it difficult and costly to travel and receive care. Additionally, less than 12% of United States physicians practice in rural areas, and the turnover rate in these communities is high.
Inevitably, this further limits the availability of medical care. By introducing a remote care option, such patients can receive the care they need from providers without leaving the comfort of their own homes.
Telemedicine also has the ability to provide more timely care. Many diseases and illnesses are time-sensitive, which is why longer wait times are associated with increased morbidity and mortality as well as reduced patient satisfaction.
Wait times are especially long to see specialists, often ranging from months to a year to be seen routinely. Digital health strategies, therefore, can help support more timely interactions between patients and their providers.
Informing Care via Health Technology
While there are many technological advancements that can help to improve patient-provider relationships, wearable devices are digital health solutions that mutually benefit the provider and patient (or consumer).
Wearable healthcare technology is defined as any electronic device that consumers or patients can wear with the purpose of collecting personal health, lifestyle, and exercise data.
These devices include technologies such as Fitbits and smartwatches, which also serve functions outside the realm of medicine.
Wearable devices can be equipped to communicate certain health information to a patient’s doctor or healthcare provider in real-time.
By providing continuous and real-life insights into a patient’s health, wearables help connect a provider and patient in a unique continuous way. With gathered data, wearables can give the provider insight into important aspects of a patient’s medical status that cannot be gained merely via an in-office visit or checkup.
These insights can influence clinical decision-making, thereby improving the quality of care a provider gives to the patient.
Decreasing Medication Errors
Medication errors are an unfortunate aspect of medical care that occur more often than anyone would like. In the United States alone, medication errors are expected to harm a minimum of 1.5 million individuals every year, causing around 400,000 preventable adverse events.
Outside of the inherent physical risk of medication errors, they can also threaten the provider-patient relationship. When errors occur, patients may lose trust in the healthcare system and their providers. Luckily, digital health strategies exist that can help to reduce such risks.
Significant evidence exists that utilizing information technology (IT) methods, like bar-coded medication administration, computerized provider order entry, and electronic medication reconciliation can help to decrease the incidence of medication errors. As such, IT in this realm has saved as much as 88 billion dollars in the U.S. over the past 10 years. Additionally, the implementation of automated records and notes has translated to fewer medication errors, causing fewer complications and lower mortality rates. Health technology, therefore, has the potential to better clinical outcomes and reduce risk.
Positive patient outcomes reinforce a patient’s trust in their provider and the healthcare system, thereby strengthening the patient-provider relationship.
Improving Outcomes via Big Data & Artificial Intelligence
Outside of the direct benefits digital health may have on patients, it can also interface with the field of artificial intelligence (AI) to help improve the patient-provider experience. AI is a branch of engineering that utilizes computers to mimic intelligent human behavior. AI has made headway in multiple fields, including the life sciences, finance, psychology, and engineering.
One of the most notable uses of AI includes its utility in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease within the field of medicine. To execute these functions, AI integrates statistics, robotics, and human biology with “big data” to gain insights and inform medical practice.
In healthcare, “big data” refers to healthcare data sets that are continuously collected and electronically stored. Big data is recyclable and multipurpose, as it can be used over and over again to serve a variety of purposes.
Likewise, we can feed big data into AI systems, producing intelligent insights to better understand the disease, treatment, and prevention. With these intelligent insights, AI and big data can help achieve more evidence-based, coordinated, and efficient delivery of care.
By making more educated decisions backed by data and AI, providers can help to improve patient outcomes.
AI can also help to automate routine processes within the field of medicine. Such processes can include things such as surgical robots, automated diagnosis, patient outreach, and more.
Automation of these procedures can help to decrease medical staff workload by freeing up time within the workday. With additional time, providers may make fewer errors, have increased situational awareness, and provide higher quality patient care.
One study, for example, evaluated the influence of automation of vital sign measurement and documentation on workload. Automation of these procedures decreased workload, temporal demands, and frustration felt by staff members.
These benefits can directly impact patients, as providers can spend more time with them, which ultimately will result in a higher quality of care.
Next-generation digital health technology is bringing seismic changes to the healthcare sector, thus redefining the doctor-patient relationship. Artificial intelligence, for example, can leverage digital health data to identify patterns and better inform clinical practice.
Telemedicine, automated patient reminders, and interactive online health platforms can increase healthcare access and promote adherence, creating new and more convenient channels for patient-provider communication.
Finally, health technology, such as wearables, have the potential to revolutionize how we collect medical data and use it to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases. Digital health, therefore, has the potential to influence almost every aspect of the healthcare sector and redefine the patient-provider relationship ‘norm.’