Doctors around the world who want to be at the forefront of medicine have many more tools today than they had 20 years ago. Technology and research have come a long way, and primary care is a testing ground for innovative models that embrace these advancements.
While many doctors still practice medicine in an analog world, others are grabbing hold of digital tools to empower their patients and improve human health. These avant-garde clinicians are challenging the assumptions of their predecessors, and bringing medicine into the 21st century.
During the early 1990s, before the Web, mobile, sensor and consumer genomics revolutions made today’s era of digital health advancements possible, “sick care” was at its zenith. For decades, much of the focus of healthcare has emphasized the reactive treatment of acute ailments instead of the proactive focus on wellness. Communication between patients and their providers at this time didn’t have the connected devices and smart tools available today.
Moreover, the process of care delivery (especially in the West) is based on a fragmented system of providers who often don’t collaborate or have access to data to give them an integrated understanding of each patient’s whole-health continuum.
In recent years, research on genomics, the microbiome, brain science and the immune system has changed our understanding of human biology. The quantified-self movement taught us how minute changes in diet or daily activity over time can have lasting impacts—both on gross biology (such as liver or cardiac health) and also on more subtle predictors of health (such as immune health and microbiome activity). And new communications platforms are making it possible to connect the dots, not only between patient and clinician, but also between all those involved in the process of providing care.
Today, many doctors are rethinking this fragmented approach to caring for their patients by combining advanced technology and diagnostic platforms, an integrated philosophy and a holistic approach that focuses much more on lifestyle development. Most significantly, the patient is a key player in driving the process. Dr. Robin Berzin, founder of Parsley Health, is one of these pioneering practitioners.
“We are moving toward a world where it is not your doctor’s job to ‘fix’ you,” Berzin said. “Instead, doctors and patients are coming together to generate health rather than treat illness.”
At StartUp Health, a global network fostering innovation in digital health, I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of bright minds like Dr. Berzin, who are thinking differently about the practice of medicine. I have identified five practices clinicians should be pursuing to keep pace with today’s innovations, and that patients should be demanding from their doctors:
- Digital Integration
- Analyzing More Data, Not Less
- Functional Medicine
Today, streams of data are swirling around us. There’s data streaming from your FitBit or Apple Watch, there are notes from your recent doctor’s visit, and there are past medical records. But too few doctors are integrating this data and helping you access it. Forward-thinking doctors are not only making it simpler for you to get your data but also interacting with patients through online “platforms,” or patient portals. These shouldn’t be complicated electronic health records; the best platforms are as intuitive as your mobile banking app. They allow patients to track their medical records and communicate with their doctor through secure email or chat. Keeping all this information in one place helps patients take control over their data and, more importantly, spot important personal health trends.
Unfortunately, many doctors still shun the idea that more data is better—often for logical reasons like the rate of false-positives, the cost of diagnostics or their lack of knowledge about how the data could be useful. These providers may be wary of genetic testing, for example, because the information may cause unnecessary stress. They may be cautious about quantifying the microbiome because the analytics systems have not been perfected. But costs are coming down rapidly for new types of diagnostics, and analytics are quickly becoming elegant enough to weed out the false alarms and spot patterns in the chaos. Many people find that knowing about a genetic marker or a certain biometric pattern can help them better understand their health.
The concept of “functional medicine” is something Dr. Berzin is executing with her health services at Parsley Health. It’s the simple idea that doctors should be focused on disease prevention rather than triaging patients after they have already become ill. This concept is not just a grassroots movement. Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s largest healthcare and research centers, recently founded a Center for Functional Medicine. And Research shows people live longer, healthier lives when they integrate meditation, exercise and proper diet—not just take medications. The best practitioners are treating you holistically, as your doctor and your life coach, helping you achieve all health goals, whether they're traditionally “medical,” or fall under the purview of emotional and lifestyle support.
Most of your health happens outside the hospital, as you’re living life. Tragically, a patient’s first experience with the healthcare system is usually after it’s too late—after a stroke, hypoglycemic attack or late-stage cancer, for example. “We need to shift the focus of care out of the hospital and into the community,” Dr. Berzin says. A savvy doctor should be able to bring care into your home, instead of making you trek to a hospital or clinic. Sometimes, they can do this via telemedicine solutions like video conferencing. Harkening back to the mid-19th century, a new brand of doctors is out making house calls. A company called Medicast is helping doctors and hospitals coordinate the logistics of house visits. Companies like CarePredict and Lively are developing devices that can track patients’ health in the home. (Disclaimer: Medicast and CarePredict are StartUp Health portfolio companies.)
- Team-Based Care
Your doctor shouldn’t be the only person directly involved in your care. Instead, you could have an entire team of experts, including patient advocates, nurses, wellness coaches, chiropractors, acupuncturists, nutritionist, lifestyle coaches and financial advisors. Instead of bombarding you with advice separately, this team comes together to craft a care plan that’s specifically suited to you. Most importantly YOU should be the key member of the team. Team-based care is not a new concept. In fact, the World Health Organization and the Institutes of Medicine both emphasize team-based care in their recommendations for primary care doctors. Yet realistically speaking, the practical execution of team-based care at scale is only recently becoming possible, as a result of new digital solutions, and data and communications platforms connecting everyone involved.
Unity Stoakes is cofounder and president of StartUp Health, a health innovation company with more than 100 digital health and wellness companies in its portfolio. Learn more at www.startuphealth.com or @startuphealth.