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First Do No Harm. How To Use Technology To Enhance Human Health

Posted by Siobhan Bulfin on May 14, 2019 1:00:00 PM

Humankind is constantly innovating new solutions to old problems - a pen and ink instead of a chisel and stone. We call these innovations technology. Going back as far as recorded history, technology has shaped nations, politics, and the world as we know it today.


As helpful as technology innovations are designed  to be, they don’t always improve the quality of life. John Naisbitt said it best in his book High Tech, High Touch, “At its best, technology can support and enhance human life. At its worst, it can isolate, distort and  destroy.” In healthcare, we need to ensure that the technologies we deploy are not only improving patient outcomes but also consider their impact on patients’ quality of life.

Technology as a means for good

Enabling behavior change

Persuasive technology is a term for tech innovations designed for behavior change. For instance, with the rise of smartphones and wearables, patients have built in nudges and reminders and in some cases incentives,  to increase physical activity.

Wearables also have helped patients stay stay on top of their health conditions such as hypertension  by tracking blood pressure. Patients can then share this health data with clinicians for improved whole person care.

Technology has enabled patients to establish interactive goals that can result in better quality of life. As healthcare leverages this potential, patients can more easily make behavior changes that last.

Building community

Technology helps patients achieve goals, and it can do so by enabling community support. Just like with social media, healthcare can use social connectivity to help patients interact with peers facing the same chronic conditions. This peer support helps patients stay engaged, motivated and gives them a larger purpose - helping others too.

Scalable health care

Because of the pervasiveness of the Internet, healthcare has the potential to reach patients with trusted and vetted  medical resources online. Never before could clinicians reach so many people at the touch of a button. Added to this, technology allows for more patient accountability by keeping patients, clinicians, medical staff, and peers connected in meaningful interactions.

The Adverse Effects of Technology

In recent years, modern technology has faced a lot of scrutiny, and rightly so. Smartphones have pervaded our lifestyles and changed cultures within a matter of years. As modern society has shifted, many wonder about the impact technology has on long term interpersonal relationships.

When it comes to health tech, similar concerns apply. Here are some common questions facing healthcare as we integrate technology with patient wellness:

  • How do interactive platforms affect interpersonal relationships between patients and clinicians?
  • Can patients actually receive effective whole-person care by way of technology?
  • In the long run, will patients’ greatest needs suffer?

Technology isn’t a replacement for relationships. For instance, patient care needs to happen in the presence of clinicians. Technology can supplement clinician care, however, to improve patient outcomes.

Another concern raised by critics is physical inactivity resulting from habitual tech use. Or the ‘Halo effect’ whereby people feel like they’re being proactive with their health just by wearing a fitness tracker - but fail to increase the number of steps (for example). Historically, people would interact in social activities and had more incentive to move. Now, however, people often prefer sedentary lifestyles aided by technology (think last weekend’s Netflix binge). If technology is contributing to the onset of chronic disease, can it really be part of the solution to improving behavioral health?

When information technology becomes an end in itself, tech then limits itself when it comes to improving patient lifestyles. This is why health tech companies need to be focused on patients and clinicians. While a tech stack is nice to have, it can never substitute for patient experience and outcomes.

Technology may be a cause for many issues facing healthcare. Ironically, however, it may also be part of the answer we need to enable disease prevention and progression.

How to ensure patient facing technologies enhance human life

Patient engagement through health technology needs to include several important ingredients to improve quality of life. Above all, it needs to emphasize personalized support that helps patients make lifestyle changes for the long run.

This support should help improve patients’ access to clinicians yet decrease the dependency and frequency of that contact. Improved ties should also result in better care coordination between various medical staff with an emphasis on supported self-management.

Patients need encouragement to address and anticipate medical issues rather than allow their disease to run its natural course. Technology is the enabler. It can aid prevention by including anytime, anywhere access to health information and support specific to their health challenges  via online support and resources.

What this could look like in real life

Health IT companies devote themselves to innovating technology solutions so health systems can keep their focus on patient wellness. When considering online solutions, here are several important questions for you to ask for improved patient engagement.

Is it enhancing quality of life?

Advances in remote monitoring technology (RPM) means patients can be connected to wearables or machines that can monitor anything from blood pressure to weight and respiratory signals, programed with protocols to alert the clinician's office should a threshold be exceeded. This level of RPM can be effective in delaying visits to the ED through early interventions based on early warning signs.

But often these are elderly patients living alone. Is it enough to hook our elderly up to machines to monitor them from afar - or does that fail to address the very real risks of social isolation and loneliness which the World Health Organization cited as being the number one risk to people’s health?

Does it improve patient support without overburdening clinicians?

Patient engagement could improve immediately if clinicians simply had more time to devote to their patients, but they don’t. Most  clinicians are overburdened and emotionally strained as they try to keep up with growing patient needs and administrative responsibilities.

Engagement models should ease clinicians’ workload so they can better focus on patient needs. For instance, health coaches and peers can aid clinicians in answering questions and providing online medical expertise. Technology can help address two of the top concerns facing US healthcare: preventing and managing chronic disease  and alleviating clinician workloads.

Does it emphasize sound medical advice?

Bad advice can quickly turn into poor outcomes. That’s why technology geared towards patient engagement needs to promote quality medical expertise. In this scenario, health coaches and community managers are an important asset.

They can monitor peer conversations and add wellness expertise to patient input. Since they stay current with patient symptoms and wellness plans, health coaches also add more personalization. Health coaches provide an extra safety net for patient health and clinician workload.

Will patients benefit in the long run?

Support comes in many different forms. For instance, sometimes patients with chronic disease need symptom advice based on others’ experience. Other times they need help living out their wellness goals.

That’s why peer support needs to be a fundamental aspect of  patient support. Patient peers provide patients with a source of “expert” advice that can increase motivation and bolster emotional health in the long run. While peer advice doesn’t replace medical expertise, it’s the only scalable way to affect positive and sustainable behavior change. .

How are you using technology to do no harm?

Topics: patient engagement, scaleable healthcare, peer support, patient community, emotional wellness

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