For the past few years, healthcare information technology has been one of the major players in healthcare reform efforts. All six hospitals in Northern Colorado are now linked with a medical information sharing program, and medical offices all over the country are getting on board with electronic medical records. The rise of electronic media in healthcare is not without controversy, but I think that we can all agree that it was - and is - inevitable. Each year brings newer and better technology, and people (patients and healthcare providers alike) have ever-increasing expectations in terms of the availability of information and communication.
Thus it's no surprise that a recent survey found that patients want more digital interaction with their doctors. Half of respondents in the study felt that a past medical problem could have been avoided if their doctor had sent text messages or emails with encouragement, tips and reminders. Of course, whether electronic communication with doctors would actually have averted the problem is unknown. What's important however, are the patients' perceptions. 68% of the survey respondents said they had never received text or email communications from their doctor, despite the fact that in many other aspects of our lives, text and email interaction are the norm. We're used to receiving information in real time, and to getting all sorts of updates via our phones, laptops and tablet computers. Why should healthcare be any different?
A quarter of the survey respondents have trouble remembering to take their medications, and this is a perfect example of a problem that can be addressed in an automated fashion via digital media. Automatically-generated text messages and/or emails from a medical office can serve as a reminder to patients to take medications, check their blood sugar, record the number of minutes they've exercised that day... there are myriad small things that patients need to do on a regular basis in order to stay healthy. Digital communications from their doctor might increase the number of patients who keep up with those things.
Healthcare tends to be an intensely private issue. We have entire legal volumes devoted to privacy in healthcare, and some of that might make doctors shy away from things like social media and digital communication with patients. But there are ways to maintain privacy and still make use of the newest communication technologies that patients are already using in large numbers. Doctors might find that once they get used to it, the time and effort required is less than with older methods of communication. And I would say that over the next few years, the percentage of patients who expect to be able to interact with their doctors via social media and digital channels will only increase. That doesn't mean that the doctor has to be on-call 24 hours a day, glued to a smartphone - a lot of it could likely be automated or done with an app. But as patient expectations change, medical communication will have to keep up with the times.
Medical records are slowly but surely moving into the digital realm, and it's only a matter of time before patients will expect to be able to access their entire medical history, as well as their health insurance claims and coverage history, with the tap of a screen, anywhere, anytime.