Over the course of my 20 year career as a nurse, I’m amazed to see how much healthcare has changed in a relatively short space of time. Especially when I reflect upon a conversation during a visit to the pharmacy museum in New Orleans Circa 2007 where we noticed that so many tools used in the health industry had not changed for centuries. A prime example is the bedpan which used to be a horribly cold metal. Today, most bedpans are disposable and made out of plastic, yet are essentially shaped the same, and do the same job. Another example would be needles; today made out of different materials but essentially shaped the same, classified the same, and doing the same thing.
New developments in technology especially with regards to telehealth, ease of developing software, and ease of using applications; have opened up the possibilities of what healthcare providers can achieve by actively engaging their patients. In 2014, Sherman and Hilton wrote, “Research compiled by organizations such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) indicates that when patients are engaged in their care, it can lead to measurable improvements in safety and quality”. Additionally, US government mandates around Meaningful Use indicates an expectation that healthcare providers use health information systems and available technology to improve patient engagement.
Over the past 5 years, communication technology has improved drastically. In many developed countries today, mobile phones and personal devices are commonplace. The technology in a mobile phone is now comparable to a mini-computer, allowing the majority of the population access to global information. These personal devices make people accessible, make communication easy, and since people are very connected to their devices, make for excellent way to be tracked. Personal devices, especially mobile phones, now have the ability to store massive amounts of information. These personal devices also have the ability to interface with personal computers and the provider’s IT systems which may be connected to a hospital or health insurance network.
As technology has incrementally improved, the development of applications has exploded. The phrase, “there’s an app for that!” is a comment on how many different types of applications there are. While health enthusiasts jumped on the bandwagon early in the game creating apps to track different types of health activities, technology continued to grow and become more and more popular with the masses. Apps like MyFitnessPal, LoseIt, MapMyRun, can help individuals track their activity, their diets, watch their calories, and in essence, work toward better health. There are apps that can track blood pressure and blood sugar values as well as menstrual cycles, ovulation cycles and pregnancies.
As word spread, and more and more users began joining these online communities, and using these applications; technology continued to grow. Soon wearable devices appeared on the scene; Jawbone, Fitbit, the Apple Watch. Major players in the mobile phone industry began investing in developing wearable devices compatible with their mobile devices. These devices ‘sync’ with personal devices like mobile phones and interface with computers. Additionally, they are extremely accessible, fashionable, while being utilitarian. A wearable device can track physical traits like heart rate, walking, running, climbing stairs and even sleep. This information is stored on the device, and can generally be stored online as well. Once this information is captured, it can be shared with others. This makes it easy to share activity, weight and vital signs with their treating provider or even in the event of emergencies with emergency providers.
One of the best predictors of improved health is patient engagement. It is proven that a patient who is engaged and invested in their health will likely be more successful in having positive outcomes with regards to health improvement and disease management. In the past, patient engagement had been difficult in many sectors of society. A big part of this could be attributed to communication and accessibility. Now that technology has improved to the point that personal devices can be used to not only communicate but also to track a patient’s health; healthcare providers can leverage this new technology to increase patient engagement.
In fact, patients can take charge of their health by working with their provider and using apps to track and trend their health. In The Nation’s Health, a publication on Public Health, Charlotte Tucker quotes Cafazzo as stating, ‘We are very encouraged that the next generation of remote patient monitoring systems will be mobile-phone based, because we need to address a huge number of people with chronic conditions in the millions and tens of millions, and many of the current technologies can only deal with the hundreds of thousands,”. This is evidence that easy accessibility due to improvements in communication and technology will not only help to collect data from patients but will also be a way to keep patients engaged and to empower them to take charge of their health.