Are Patients Seeing A Digital Health Revolution?

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I would hardly call my most recent visit to the doctor a "patient experience revolution." (PIxabay/geralt)

I devote a lot of time to writing about how technology has the potential to transform health care. But as a patient, it doesn't feel like the experience has changed much in the past five years.

During a recent visit to the doctor's office, I sat in a waiting room for thirty minutes filling out about 10 pages of paperwork about my family history (no changes there). I spent about ten minutes with my doctor, who stole occasional glances at me while glued to his computer screen (a worse experience, if anything).

But there were a few improvements: I scheduled my appointment online, and checked my lab results via a so-called "patient portal," a secure, online system.

Don't get me wrong, online scheduling is far more convenient than calling during work hours and leaving a voicemail. But I would hardly call these changes a "patient experience revolution," the buzz phrase I often hear at health care conferences.


But I'm in my late twenties and relatively healthy, so I posed the question to KQED readers on Twitter. Some of you said you now receive your medications via electronic refills. Others are routinely emailing and chatting with their doctor through patient portals.

These changes may seem small and incremental. But I spoke with some experts who say that the experience of health care has actually transformed in ways that you and I might not expect.

What Else has Changed?

The team at Rock Health, a San Francisco-based venture fund, recently surveyed U.S. consumers to find out how technology has impacted health care.

The survey found that 71 percent of people search for health information online. Almost half of these patients booked an appointment with a doctor with a pre-existing diagnosis in mind.

That's actually a major change that's giving people an opportunity to get more involved in their health, says Rock Health's managing director Malay Gandhi. It has also given rise to websites that disseminate medical information (WebMD, HealthTap) as well as online patient communities (PatientsLikeMe, CrowdMed, SmartPatients).

"People may not recognize this behavior as being directly related to their health," says Regina Holliday, a patient advocate from Grantsville, Maryland. "But it's a huge shift that is changing how patients are treated -- for the better and the worse."

Holliday pointed me to a few trends that are bringing much-needed transparency to health care, such as shopping for health plans online. In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, patients are using policy recommendations sites (GetInsured, Stride Health) before making a final selection on their health insurance.

In the next few years, Holliday sees potential for technology that helps doctors "triage" patients, and see those most in need first. She also hopes more doctors will join a movement to share their notes with patients. That program, known as OpenNotes, is rapidly spreading to hospitals and health systems across the country.

"I think health care has massively changed," said Holliday. "But we don't recognize that sometimes, as we're impatient for the changes to happen faster."