With all the technological advancements we’ve seen in the past five, ten, and twenty years, the future of the health and wellness industry is undoubtedly one that will be marked by groundbreaking discovery and relentless innovation. However, some of the changes that will continue to make the biggest impact one peoples’ health won’t involve surgical implements or clinical trials. Instead, digital disruption is making it easier than ever for people to connect with their medical professionals, meaning waiting rooms and White Coat Hypertension could become a thing of the past.
Though an online patient portal or a smartphone app aren’t as exciting as the cure for cancer or ALS, they’re increasing in relevance by the day and can mean big things for improving patient’s care, relationships with their providers, and overall health. Let’s take a look at what the future of the health industry looks like and how digital disruption will play a role.
Online Patient Portals:
In the olden days (okay, until 2012) if you had a medical test like a biopsy or STD screening performed at your physician’s office, you would go home and wait anxiously until your doctor called to inform you of your results and if you needed to come in for a follow-up appointment. If you wanted a second opinion or to see a specialist, you had to request access to your medical chart you had to request it and have it mailed.
Now that many hospitals are transitioning to paperless systems and utilizing Electronic Health Records, this aspect of the health industry has been almost entirely streamlined in an attempt to lessen the lag time and become more patient-friendly. By creating an online account with the portal, patients can access all of their information, including test results, their full medical chart, a write-up of their previous visits, schedule appointments, and even send secure messages to their healthcare provider.
Monique Steel, a nurse practitioner at the University of Michigan Health Service said in an interview that she views online patient portals as the best of both worlds because they can help bridge the gap between patients and their healthcare professionals.
“A lot of people still want conversations with their doctors, but they also want to digest information at their own pace,” she said. “Electronic Health Records allow you to look at your full medical chart, which always a big hassle before, so it’s really putting people’s own information in their own hands.”
While many people use the online patient portals–hospitals all over the world are making the switch everyday–Steel said these technologies are particularly popular with millennial generation, especially college students.
“Students tend to really enjoy this service because there are no disruptions,” she said. “If they have a test done at the University Health Service, they’ll get a notification as soon as that information is available, so if they’re in class or busy they can check it really quickly on their phone or computer, as opposed to a phone call from a doctor or nurse that might be disruptive or go to voice mail if they’re in class.”
Steel added that she believes students appreciate the increased privacy and ability to digest their own medical information at their own pace, as well as the 24/7 reassurance. If test results are positive, for example, patients are prompted on the portal to schedule a follow up appointment for further treatment, and they can see a full list of all their interactions, follow-ups, and medications for future reference.
In 2012, the University of Michigan Health System began a rocky transition to an electronic records system, partnering with Epic, a software company tasked with streamlining patient information for maximum efficiency. (Today, Epic currently services 69% of Stage 7 U.S. Hospitals, 71% of children’s hospitals, and 91% of Stage 7 Clinics in the U.S. alone.)
The information system specific to UMHS is called MiChart, and it’s referred to as an online doctor’s office.
“MiChart is changing the way we create and access clinical information to care for our patients, conduct clinical research and secure payment across UMHS. MiChart also has introduced new ways for patients to take an active role in their health care, including the use of online ‘portals.'”
-UMHS press release, 2012
Through MiChart, found at myuofmhealth.org, students can log in an access a private server where they can:
- Request appointments
- Request prescription renewals
- Review health history
- View immunization records
- Send secure message to their health team
Steel said this feature is particularly important because students are often guilty of putting off doctor’s visits, even when they need them, because they’re worried about waiting around or wasting a lot of time. In fact, since transitioning to the portal system, Steel said patient satisfaction has risen from 70 percent to 90 percent in just three years.
In an interview with the Michigan Daily, UHS Medical Director Robert Ernst agreed that the change to MiChart was a major step for UHS, particularly because they were transitioning from paper charts to computers.
“It was a really major shift in our practice when we moved from paper records to an electronic record system,” Ernst said. “And I don’t think you can underestimate the disruption.”
Despite the learning curve, portals have proven to be successful with patients and health-related technology is expected to continue working to improve the patient experience by providing easier access to information and streamlining administrative matters.
Health: There’s an App for that
While the increased prevalence of EHR’s focuses on increasing available information from a clinical perspective, another vital aspect of digital disruption and the future of the health and wellness industry is probably sitting in your pocket, on the table next to you, or maybe even in your hand. I’m talking of course about your smartphone and the 40,000+ results that come up if you search for a health related app within Apple’s App Store. From recipe finders to training regiments, and pedometers to period trackers, it can seem like there’s nothing your phone can’t help you do, including live a healthier life.
The most important part of using a health or fitness app is just that, and while downloads of fitness-related apps have increased 49% in the last year, usage in daily has increased 62% in the same time, according to Flurry.com’s analytics.
While statistics may look convincing and everyone from Cosmopolitan to Business Insider wants to tell you which apps are the best, it’s important to consult a medical professional before undergoing any major lifestyle changes, especially if you’re using an app to test your blood glucose levels, which you can do now.
Though she acknowledges there are positive and negative aspects of using an app to maintain or better your health, Steel said she sees their value in modern society and recommends some of them to her patients.
For example, she said dietary apps that have calorie trackers can be great for newbies looking to become aware about their daily food intake, but warns that apps like MyFitnessPal can encourage dieters to lose too much weight, as well as exacerbate disordered behaviors and eating habits if the counting gets out of control. Steel believes that exercise apps can have the same potential, and advises patients to start slowly, listen to their bodies, and practice moderation.
As a women’s health professional, Steel particularly emphasized the plethora of apps geared towards helping women manage their reproductive health. This includes apps designed to remind you to take your birth control pills everyday, track your monthly cycle and ovulation patterns, and much more.
“A lot of people find that traditional calendars are less efficient and if you’re not keeping track with something it becomes really easy to not know where you’re at or what you should expect,” she said. “Obviously these apps are a great help, but you have to be proactive. It doesn’t do you any good to have an alarm on your phone if your pills are at home.”
Of course, I’d be remiss to discuss interactive, web-based applications without a nod to the one that started it all: the infamous WebMD, which is now free at the App Store. That’s right, now you can convince yourself that your cough is actually throat cancer from virtually anywhere, and the jury is still out on whether or not that’s a good thing.
Though Steel said she believes patients can become overly concerned after visiting these types of sites, she appreciates the opportunity for increased access to information.
“Even if people are known to behave a little hypochondriacally after using these apps, a lot of people will find information and it will prompt them to seek medical attention, which often ends up being a good thing,” she said. “A lot of times the apps will suggest you try over-the-counter remedies initially, but then advise you to see a medical professional if your symptoms worsen which is helpful.”
While she again advocates for patients to be more informed, Steel couldn’t confidently say that there’s “no detriment” to prioritizing a computer’s advice over that of a living, breathing doctor or nurse. She cautioned that patients also have to be “discerning readers” and have the responsibility to seek out good sources and quality information.
In addition to the plethora of options patients have to renew prescriptions, schedule appointments, and familiarize themselves with their records, Steel said she believes an increase in doctor/patient communication is going to be a staple of the future of health and wellness, again made possible because of technological resources and advancements.
In this case, some doctors are now encouraging their patients to reach out to them by e-mail for non-emergent medical situations. Though most practices reserve the right to a “three day response window” Steel said people tend to feel more comfortable communicating with medical professionals this way because they use e-mail so often at work and school. She said it’s also becoming increasingly common for people to send their doctors pictures for a more comprehensive online assessment.
“Let’s say you have a rash, you might send a picture of it to your doctor and they can reply and tell you if you need to come in right away, or if you should wait a while or they might suggest an over-the-counter remedy,” she said.
Though this method of communication is familiar, convenient, and unconventional, Steel warns patients to only relay medical information over a secure network (meaning your umich account or a private e-mail won’t cut it.) It’s also not the fastest way to get answers about your health, but Steel adds that if you have reservations or anxiety, this might be a positive aspect of digital disruption.
With that being said, she doesn’t think we’ll, as a society, ever get to the point of using Snapchat or Vine in a clinical context, nor does she think this trend means we’ll be tagging our doctors in Instagram posts, though she has heard of doctors allowing patients to contact them over text.
In fact, this trend is so prevalent that HIPAA has tightened its regulations regarding privacy settings so patients’ rights are protected, even over text.
Shifting the Focus to Prevention:
When asked about the clinical advancements expected in the next five or ten years, Steel said the possibilities are basically endless because the medical field is constantly changing.
With the onset of new technological advances, Steel thinks there’s going to be a highlighted focus on genetic testing and screening, as well as the importance of genetic counseling, where doctors determine what to test for and what treatments to consider if the patient does have the gene.
This procedure made headlines in the past year after actress Angelina Jolie underwent genetic counseling and testing, ultimately finding that she carried the BRCA1 gene, putting her at an 80% risk for developing breast cancer and catalyzing her decision t have a double mastectomy.
Advocating for more education related to women’s health issues and preventative care, Steel said that peoples’ knowledge is often based off prior experiences and perceptions that may be out of date.
“We’re continually seeing changes in cervical cancer detection and breast cancer screening, as well as HPV screening,” she said. “Adding Gaurdasil, for example, has resulted in a lot fewer abnormal pap smears over the past several years, so now the recommendation is to have a test every five years instead of every year.”
“Prevention should be woven into all aspects of our lives, including where and how we live, learn, work and play. Everyone—government, businesses, educators, health care institutions, communities and every single American—has a role in creating a healthier nation.”
-cdc.org on preventative care
Doctors agree that early detection is a key factor in favorable prognoses, but preventative care isn’t limited to oncology. According to the CDC, preventative care means young children stay home sick from school less often, adults can be more productive at work, and seniors can retain more of their independence. I firmly believe that we have the tools and resources at our disposal to really make prevention a priority and that maintaining a healthy lifestyle will be a main part of the future of health and wellness.
Utilizing the Media:
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we have a life-changing online portal, smartphone app, vaccination, or technological advance if people aren’t educated and informed enough to use it or ask for it. Doctors are a valuable primary source of information regarding the advancements in your field, but if a patient is only going to the office once or twice a year, they’re not going to be getting that expertise, especially on timely issues.
That is why my last prediction is that the media becomes and even more important tool for educating and informing people about their opportunities and options when it comes to their health. Throughout this class, we’ve learned of countless ways to get news, from legacy media outlets, to radio broadcasts, podcasts, and even your Facebook feed. If these news agencies are able to work together and ensure quality, comprehensive coverage, people will know what their options are, from apps to vaccines, and I believe they will pursue them.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, people are still getting their news from a diverse array of mediums, but online (especially mobile) surfing is taking precedence. In fact, increased time spent online means Americans are consuming news more than ever before. The average viewer sees about 950 impressions online per day … Imagine if even a fraction of those were substantive content related to health and wellness?
The fact that all these gadgets and gizmos exist (and continue to be created at such a rate) indicate that people are indeed interested in health and wellness and leading healthier lives. For this reason, I feel that the future of health and wellness will be marked by even further innovation and integration into our daily lives, and that digital disruption will continue to be a double-edged sword. While it’s important that people have options and can find a workout, health-related app, preventative procedure, or online platform that works for them, the constant contact can de-sensitize people and make them forget that their health is of the utmost importance and not on the same wavelength as an Instagram post of a game of Angry Birds.Ultimately, having a handheld personal trainer or physician on speed dial won’t do much good if people aren’t educated, motivated, and committed to being healthier and changing their lives.