Five Ways Digital Communication Tools Can Improve Health Care

Many of the problems plaguing healthcare today, specifically errors in patient care, reside in poor communications.  How many of us need to listen to the entire recorded message tree when calling a doctor’s office or healthcare facility, only to not reach the intended person and as a result giver up trying? Why is it that most people when leaving an office visit do not know their diagnosis or how to take their prescribed medication? How can we best engage patients whose native language is not English? How do we best engage all patients? I will discuss five types of digital tools which address clinical needs.

  1. Patient handoff tools. Discontinuity in patient care in the hospital or other care facility is necessary. Strictly speaking, a handoff is the transfer of role and responsibility from one person to another in a physical or mental process.  An excellent study from 2005 examined multiple areas of communication surrounding the patient handoff.  The authors argue for a combination of verbal and written communication.   According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHQR), components of an effective handoff strategy should reflect the acronym ANTICipate:
  • Administrative data (patient’s name, medical record number, and location) must be accurate.
  • New clinical information must be updated.
  • Tasks to be performed by the covering provider must be clearly explained.
  • Illness severity must be communicated.
  • Contingency plans for changes in clinical status must be outlined, to assist cross-coverage in managing the patient overnight.


The role of technology in the patient handoff process is clear. The implementation of one handoff program as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine last year reduced the rate of preventable adverse events by 30%.  There are different types of handoff tools which might vary in complexity, specialty, and effectiveness.*

  1. Caregiver tools. There is finally now focus on technology for caregivers. This makes perfect sense since caregivers are more likely to be digitally connected via smartphones and apps, though at a logistical disadvantage.  Technology enables surveillance (both figuratively and literally) of loved ones.
  2. Language tools. Obviously language becomes a critical barrier when the subject of patient engagement is discussed.  The legal framework for language access in healthcare settings is not new.  What is different is the significant increase in cultural diversity of the USA.  The combination of this diversity as well as the increase in patients with chronic diseases increases the imperative of health literacy for all patients.  The lack of adequate language translation might be the difference between life and death.  This critical gap has been addressed by multiple translational services, some enabled with video conferencing.  One unique company in this area is SpeechMED which utilizes mobile technology for all aspects of healthcare.*
  3. Telehealth. In a previous post I discussed how I believe telehealth will change healthcare. It will close gaps in healthcare. These gaps include gaps of access due to rural/remote geographical regions or lack of available physicians in certain medical specialties.  Telehealth can keep patients in touch with their usual healthcare providers and specialists without an in-person visit.
  4. Patient-provider messaging tools. Many questions patients have can be answered quickly via messaging. We are used to messaging people in other aspects of our daily lives.  Communication tools allow for more prompt responses and will I believe facilitate the rebirth of the patient-physician relationship which has all but disappeared in the harried world of the 15-minute office encounter.  People have questions they recall when they leave or think of after a discussion with a caregiver or other healthcare provider. There are many such tools in use and the most utilized fall into the category of patient portal provided by the EHR vendor.

Although this is certainly not an exhaustive review of the topic, technology communication tools in healthcare will become part of our routine.  The concept of these tools is no longer something from outer space.  Communication is a phenomenon older than mankind itself. What technology does is make it more convenient and should never be seen as a replacement for traditional human interactions.  As I say, technologies are tools which only become solutions when incorporated into a humanistic context.

*Disclosure: The author is an advisor to MEDarchon which makes Quarc, a healthcare communications tool and SpeechMed.

Posted in communications, digital health technology, healthcare economics, language, patient engagement, pharma, smartphone apps, technology, telehealth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five Reasons Why the Future of Clinical Trials Utilizing Mobile Technology is Here

In a previous post I discussed both the merits and needs for the use of mobile technologies in clinical trials. Recruiting patients via social media is now a reality and has been a topic of discussion in many forums, including mainstream medical journals.  There is no question that online patient support groups serve unique purposes. There are regulatory issues involved in this arena.  However, new regulatory frameworks need to be developed in the age of digital and mobile trials with considerations to technology and patient populations. To be more specific, mobile technologies have unique issues to address. Crowdsourced clinical studies  have been recognized as an emerging aspect of clinical research for years. Even funding for medical research has found its way to the masses.  Regardless of changes in the paradigm of conducting trials, patient safety must always remain a priority of study designers and investigators (whether organizational or subject investigators). The subject of health literacy is extremely important today. It is recognized as a major determinant of patient engagement. Health literacy is a critical factor in pharmaceutical and device labeling and is paramount to user experience of a mobile health app of any kind.

Improving patient recruiting, retention, and data collection should be the priorities of any mobile technology in this space. I am going to discuss why we can and need to adopt mobile technologies for clinical trials now.

1. Corporate giants are paving the way. Apple’s ResearchKit is a pioneering effort to accomplish many objectives. Its present offerings will not cure heart cancer (though arguably, if optimally utilized in association with other tools by both providers and patients it might prevent them). What it will do is to markedly increase awareness and enthusiasm of the public as well as the healthcare provider community to participate in clinical trials. ResearchKit’s present apps are primarily geared for wellness, with monitoring via smartphone sensors initially, but the satisfaction of participating in research and the sense of empowerment that participants will experience will pay huge dividends with regards to more disease-oriented research down the line. In addition, and not to be minimized, it will facilitate the adoption of mobile technology in general in the wellness and healthcare arenas.

2. The technology is here. One might intuitively think that a clinical trial mobile app might simply consist of a technology limited to data and symptom entry. But the dynamics and workflows of all phases of a clinical trial make that a recipe for poor recruiting and lack of patient engagement and thus retention. Parallel 6 is a company which utilizes patented technology in its end to end mobile clinical trial technology for improving both the recruiting and retention of study subjects. In addition, pharmaceutical companies are realizing the power of crowdsourced studies.  This is illustrated by the partnership deal between Genentech and 23andme.  These kinds of partnerships themselves spawn proliferation of mobile clinical trials.

3. Traditional evidence-based medicine is no longer considered infallible. As I have previously reported, there are significant cracks in the foundation of evidence-based clinical trials.  Some of these cracks may be due to well-publicized gender bias possibly related to recruitment practices (see below). These biases have been recognized by the FDA and stressed as a priority of attention in the recruiting of study subjects.  Social media as a source of study subject recruitment has multiple appealing aspects. It can facilitate recruitment of patients with rare diseases who reside in widely dispersed geographical regions. One study found that patients who are actively engaged in the use of social media for healthcare information are 60% more likely to have participated in a clinical trial compared to the general population. Clinical trial recruitment via social media can potentially decrease gender bias, leveling the clinical trial subject playing field. Amy Ohm, the CEO of Treatment Diaries, a large and successful online cross-disciplinary collection of support groups states that 73% of the site’s participants are female.

4. Traditional clinical trial research is becoming financially unfeasible. The cost of clinical trials is discouraging both sponsors and healthcare enterprises from conducting traditional clinical trials. The cost of even a market-approved medical device trial for a new indication is tens of millions of dollars. The cost of clinical research nurses and coordinators has become prohibitive for institutions except those most famous or endowed. Although most research today is sponsor-driven, research by physicians in smaller hospitals and organizations is cost-prohibitive. Mobile technology can potentially assist in this regard. Even clinical research organizations (CROs) are looking to decrease costs and improve efficiency. The cost reduction projected for each phase of a trial in multiple disease state areas with the use of mobile technologies has been estimated in a recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services. “In Phase 1, the highest savings are $0.4 million (immunomodulation and respiratory system). The savings range from $0.5 million (cardiovascular) to $2.4 million (hematology) studies in Phase 2. In Phase 3, the highest savings that can be expected from the adoption of mobile technologies is $6.1 million (pain and anesthesia). Finally, the range of savings in Phase 4 studies is $0.7 million (genitourinary system) and $6.7 million (respiratory system).”

5. Mobile can improve trial safety and efficiencies in clinical workflow. With the collection of more data in real-time, the improved efficiencies produced with mobile technology might theoretically improve patient satisfaction, study subject retention, and the aforementioned cost to study sponsor and investigators.  In addition, earlier reporting of adverse events might translate to safer patient outcomes.  I truly look forward to pharmaceutical and medical device companies, CROs, payers, and healthcare institutions saving money which can be better utilized with the use of mobile technologies for clinical trials.


Posted in digital health, EHR, FDA, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT, medical apps, medical devices, medical education, mHealth, mobile health, remote patient monitoring, smartphone apps, technology, telehealth, wireless health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A New Paradigm for Digital Pharma: The Digital KOL

A digital strategy is important for Pharma to remain relevant.  The need to connect with both patients and providers via digital formats and via mobile devices has been dictated by the successful penetration of these types of marketing, educational, and engagement tools in other aspects of our daily lives. Healthcare providers expect this evolution in the workplace as well.

Pharma’s traditional collaboration with KOLs has been successful. The quickest way to facilitate adoption of a Digital Pharma model of interaction with providers is to utilize the KOL, who, like a traditional KOL is a trusted and respected leader. There is a need for physicians who champion online interactions, realize the value of social media, and are familiar with best practice digital and mobile health technologies to be involved in new industry initiatives. These initiatives include furnishing needed information to both providers and patients based on evidence and experience.

The business model Digital Pharma has heretofore been one of a direct to patient/consumer play. It is well-appreciated by industry that it is hard these days (if not impossible in many circumstances) for Pharma clinical liaisons (Pharma reps most trusted by physicians) or r other agents to engage physicians directly due to organizational policy restrictions, lack of available time in between those 15-minute patient visits, or worse, at the scrub sink or OR lounge.  I would submit that these encounters need to be redesigned to be one of a ‘pull’ by the physician and not a ‘push’ by industry. Digital both allows for and encourages new business models.   What if a provider could, by way of a digital profile created, determine what individualized type of encounter was preferred (in-person, secure text message, email, safety alert, published clinical study results, or a combination thereof)?  This would save huge pieces of marketing budgets for industry while creating focused high value proposition interactions based on provider preference. Digital KOLs will be utilized to help design, implement, and lead adoption of content and presentations (both static and live).  This would amount to an Amazon type one stop ‘shopping’ of Digital Pharma education for providers. These ideas are admittedly out of the box. But physicians are thirsty for meaningful information and data provided by Pharma while requiring convenient and trusted means of obtaining it.  Digital KOLs will be helpful in creating awareness and presenting the value proposition of digital to their peers at professional society meetings.  The FDA just presented its Guidance document on Pharma and social media.  This should only serve to enhance the industry’s digital presence, not discourage it as some have hinted.

Digital as a DTC strategy needs to close the patient engagement loop.  I submit that the only way that can happen is with involvement of clinicians.  There is a historically low mistrust of the industry by the public.  Healthcare providers must be involved.  They are the ones who have the relationship (strained as it may be in 2015) with the patient. In addition, no digital technology is a solution. It only becomes a solution in the context of human interactions and processes built around it.  Therefore, the technology necessarily involves a provider. Otherwise these tools never become solutions.

There is presently much industry buzz about quite a few prescription drugs going over the counter (OTC).  This will necessitate significant efforts devoted to patient education focused on safety and self-management. There are great opportunities in this arena for digital technologies. The delivery (‘prescribing’) of digital tools to patients can take place with results monitored by both providers and industry.  KOLs in this space are needed in this critical time of creating awareness not just of products, but of ways in which digital interactions between industry and providers will take place. Scientific liaisons, sales and technical support personnel will still be critical players in the process, but the means of interactions will evolve. Clinical trials are moving into the mobile technology arena (see Parallel 6). Physician KOLs need to help pave the way for this new model as well.

Pharma is doing progressively more marketing research and marketing via digital technology. The use of mobile devices is catching on in the industry (see Prolifiq) .  Digital health advertizing is big business (see McCann Health and InTouch Solutions).  Other targets of interest are online physician (Doximity, Medscape) and patient (Treatment Diaries, WEGO Health) communities, general social media sites (Facebook, Twitter), and even electronic records companies (Practice Fusion).  I believe that the use of physician KOLs can markedly increase the success of these strategies. Many physicians do not encourage patients from seeking medical information online. They would if they had better tools to utilize.  Therein lays the value proposition as a win-win for Pharma.  KOLs will be provider champions of prescribing digital tools (including appropriate online sites, apps, and other tools). Ultimately, the primary objectives of better provider-patient, industry-provider, and industry-consumer relationships, improved patient outcomes we constantly hear about can be facilitated with the use of excellent digital tools.

Posted in clinical trials, digital health, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT, informatics, medical apps, mHealth, mobile health, smartphone apps, technology, telehealth | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five Imperatives of User Experience (UX) Design in Mobile Health Technology

The Wiki definition of UX design is “the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product.” UX design success in mobile health technologies depends upon the achievement of including the best in reliability, usability, privacy and safety, content, and pleasurable experience. I will discuss what I think are five important issues in achieving the ideal mobile technology user experience, specifically for those technologies hoping to enter the healthcare (versus consumer) market.

  1. Clinician involvement in development. I first realized the importance of UX design when working on an interoperability project in 2004 between remote monitoring data from implantable cardiac defibrillators and my electronic health record (EHR) company. The EHR programmer and I worked together with an interesting dynamic as he had no clinical background and I had no CS expertise. The UX design was dictated by me, the user. The programmer had no idea in what order or visual format (pages, tabs, etc) was expected by the clinician for optimal UX. This was not a patient-facing mobile technology where attention to UX design is critical to success. I was therefore not surprised to see poor UX design by mobile health app developers in 2010.  The lack of clinician involvement in development of mobile health technologies continues dominate the landscape today notwithstanding vendor promises of achieving better patient outcomes at a lower cost and better patient experience. Expert clinician input is necessary on a number of levels. It assures accurate and reliable content. It leads to a better UX for the clinician with regards to how data is obtained, presented and incorporated into clinical workflow.
  2. Patient and caregiver involvement in development. Just as clinician involvement is important in the development phase, so is that of the patient and/or caregiver who are the data sources. If they are not engaged by good UX design, the technology never takes off and no one even knows why. Many patients don’t manage their medications, appointments, or data because they might not have a smartphone. That shouldn’t be a reason not to recommend an app, digital patient education or device tool. A caregiver (typically younger and digitally connected) will likely be more able to engage the product. I have witnessed this many times in my own practice when recommending a digital tool. There is a workflow to being a patient which differs from that of the provider.  It consists of incorporating the digital interaction with activities such as timing of medications, physical activity, or even those unrelated to healthcare. The content and visual displays to patients are necessarily different.  The same mindset of developers which marginalizes clinicians invariably sees the patient as a passive recipient of this tool. The proverbial ‘build it and they will come’ works neither for provider nor patient. The true value of patient involvement in development is easily seen if small incremental alpha testing is performed along the way.
  3. Less is more. The value of an app is simple, intuitive, and pleasurable interaction. Crowding a screen with data or words is counterproductive. If the app is about patient data, meds, or appointments, then these must take up the vast majority of the screen. Efficiency of the presentation, interaction, and feedback are important to a good UX. There must be age, healthcare and educational literacy, and ethnic language appropriateness.
  4. Privacy and security in the background. A better user experience might occur at the expense of less personal data privacy. A social community has been a component of successful health apps. It can however create (in the absence of chosen anonymity) a great experience at risk of privacy. This is usually made clear with a disclaimer and many participants are willing members anyway.  The aggregation of pooled or anonymous data is considered by some a breach of privacy or ownership. These issues are presently the subject of ethical, legal, and business discussions. Lack of privacy or security is often not discovered until after a breach.  This has been seen in HIPAA violation cases involving large healthcare providers and payers and cases of large retail companies. Not all people share the same concern for or desire similar levels of security and privacy. Measuring satisfaction of security level is not easy to say the least. The app must provide the highest level of security which also allows for the best UX. People may opt out of sharing data, identity, etc. but the ‘opt out’ option must be presented.  
  5. Creation of a sandbox enjoyable to both play in, revisit, and benefit from. UX design should make it enjoyable to experience the app utilizing a humanistic and empathetic slant. Empathy is sorely lacking in medicine today. It is potentially the biggest factor in a good physician-patient relationship. It is a large part of the attraction of online patient support groups. Social community interactions around the focus of the app incentivizes users to experience as much of the app as possible as well as return to it after it is downloaded (something done in only 10% of health apps in current use). Medical apps can potentially have a very unique place in digital health by impacting what we value most in life, health.

The UX design part of medical app development is very much underappreciated today. It is more than a first impression. It is akin to a good learning experience in school. If it sparks the enthusiasm of a student, it can mean the difference between dropping out and graduating with honors. For more on what constitutes good UX design in healthcare, I would suggest this review from a HIMSS workshop on the subject.

Posted in digital health, Healthcare IT, medical apps, mHealth, mobile health, patient engagement, pharma, remote patient monitoring, risk management, smartphone apps, technology, telehealth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Five Ways Analytics in Digital Health Tools Will Change Healthcare

There are many reasons cited why digital technologies hope to improve of patient care as well as the state of healthcare itself. They include improving efficiencies, patient safety, and cost. However, as has been seen with the most ubiquitous face of digital health technology, the EHR, these promises remain unfulfilled. One significant barrier to the utility of digital technology has been the heretofore unlinked status of ‘sterile’ data with analytical tools which can bring it into the world of clinical relevance to both the provider and patient. Analytics have been utilized in other sectors of society including retail, social and finance for decades. They drive efficiencies and outcomes at Amazon, IBM, telecoms, FedEx, financial institutions, and sports. Yet the millions of bits of discrete data amassed every minute in healthcare are warehoused in a contextual vacuum. To add insult to injury, even when utilized in hospital patient satisfaction surveys, bundled payment programs, and physician performance measures, the results are transmitted to healthcare enterprises and providers (who are eager to affect improvement based on these metrics) only after months (and up to a year) later. Analytics can be seen as mission control of digital technologies, putting all the pieces together in order to assure ultimate success of the vision. The filtered data needs to be delivered in real-time and incorporated into operational and clinical workflows without having to be mined. Barriers to the adoption of analytics were identified in a joint study by IBM and MIT. The biggest ones were: inability to get the data, the culture does not encourage the sharing of data, lack of understanding of the benefits of analytics, competing administrative priorities, and lack of executive sponsorship. It should be noted that this study was performed in 2010. Nevertheless it is the opinion of this author that these same barriers remain obstacles today. I will discuss some reasons why analytics will ultimately change healthcare.

  1. Analytics will deliver value to electronic health records (EHRs). EHRs were developed to help improve and integrate the flow of clinical information.  However, they were designed as billing tools which also met regulatory specifications.  They do not follow clinical workflows. The American Medical Association has called for design overhaul of EHRs to improve usability.  Clinical decision support is rudimentary and can vary widely in its breadth and depth of use. The discussion of the utility of analytics with EHRs is not new. I suggested what this might look like in healthcare in a piece I wrote in 2011, with pilot studies using predictive analytics have been done.
    1. Analytics can improve clinical workflow. It is intuitive that analytics can improve workflow. Actually determining this by way of metrics has been a challenge. One interesting study from the University of Michigan “focused on measuring clinicians’ ‘time expenditures’ among different clinical activities rather than inspecting clinical ‘workflow’ from the true ‘flow of the work’ perspective.”
    2. Proscribed therapies and digital health tools. Analytics will recommend, based on available data in the EHR (diagnoses, medications, vital signs, results of tests) treatment and discharge plans as well as digital tools for patients (patient education on diagnoses, medication, and follow-up and care instructions. Case managers (as well as the healthcare provider) who have backgrounds in informatics will review these recommendations. This will close the loop as a human element check.
    3. Population health management. ‘Population health’ is currently the buzz phrase for healthcare enterprises. It encompasses preventive health, outreach programs including telehealth, and the use of data to drive health outcomes. Analytics will facilitate this by analyzing real-time data gathered by EHRs, social media, genomics, and mobile health technologies including apps and remote patient monitoring. Crowdsourcing data, whether it is derived from a worldwide or single institutional database is very powerful.
  2. Analytics will transform Big Data into Actionable Data.
    1. Preventing hospital readmissions is becoming a significant focus of healthcare enterprises because of the financial penalties tied to them via CMS. Remote patient monitoring (RPM) is becoming a significant tool in preventing these readmissions by providing continuity of patient-derived data with the hospital, recognizing actionable trending data before it results in a trip to the ER and a subsequent admission to the hospital. One of the unmet challenges of most RPM systems is to incorporate analytics with the technology, offering suggested changes in lifestyle, care, or other instructions to patients and/or caregivers, or changes in the therapeutic plan to the provider.  This is a far cry from the provider receiving a deluge of useless data for analysis.  This type of analytics can also incorporate clinical decision support based on evidence-based medicine.
    2. Use in clinical trials, post marketing of drugs and devices. Analytics can be extremely helpful in the recruitment and retention of patients in clinical trials. There are a few mobile health technology companies in this space. One not mentioned (by way of disclosure to which I am an advisor) is Parallel6 which utilizes patented technology to keep patients and investigators connected. Post-marketing surveillance of medical devices, new pharmaceuticals, and drugs which transition from prescription to over the counter is critical in discovering adverse reactions and other events not captured during controlled (relatively short-term) approval trials or regulated prescribing.
  3. Analytics will be the key to personalized medicine. Only via analytics can we combine the value of population health data and clinical and digital data from an individual patient in an expedited and accurate fashion. Should all patients with the same cancer receive the same treatment regimen? Analytics can potentially readily address variances of diagnosis and/or treatment of a disease based on geography, race, and genomics.
  4. Analytics will decrease gaps/bias in care (geographic, socioeconomic). It is well-known that geographic variations exist in healthcare utilization and costs. Analytics incorporated into EHRs can utilize best practices seen vis-a-vis pooled data such as this to ‘level the playing field’ with respect to both quality and cost of treatment.
  5. Analytics will decrease the cost of care. The use of analytics is readily seen with its incorporation in apps which provide healthcare cost transparency. Analytics can also help patients interested in medical tourism choose a destination. There are apps which allow patients to compare charges for a given procedure.
  6. I do not pretend to deliver the message that analytics is the Wizard of Oz of healthcare, nor that the successful revamping of our broken system lies solely in IT. As described above, barriers to the use of analytics are not technical but cultural. Organizations like Kaiser-Permanente and Geisinger Health System already realize the value proposition of employing high-grade real-time analytics to drive better outcomes and lower costs. It is important for hospitals to realize that remaining in just survival mode is not an option and that a vision of utilizing cost-effective resources such as analytics can be the best investment for success.
Posted in analytics, digital health, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT, healthcare reform, medical devices, mHealth, mobile health, patient engagement, pharma, remote patient monitoring, sudden cardiac arrest, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why Home Care is More Important than Readmission Rates: Implications for Digital Health Technologies

The Affordable Care Act added a section to the Social Security Act known which established the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program. Under the new fines as described in an article by Kaiser Health News, three-quarters of eligible hospitals will be fined in the program’s third year. Fines totaling $428M will be levied from payments of Medicare patients, not limited to those who were readmitted. I first wrote about the role of  role of digital health tools in reducing readmissions in 2011 prior to the program going into effect. Digital tools have been since been developed for providers and offered by entities including the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality . Technology is being touted as a savior for readmission penalty reduction. But as I have stated many times, technology offers tools which only become solutions in the context of processes involving humans and aimed at solving specific problems. The topic of hospital readmissions is important because no one wants to rebound back into a hospital after a serious illness but popular primarily because of its financial implications. These regulations are part of the historical Medicare-provider cat and mouse reimbursement game that has been taking place for decades. But I digress. Patients and caregivers today are more concerned about what support THEY have when discharged from a hospital as well as that which can help them avoid an initial hospitalization.

Information regarding coverage home care in the USA is available at Medicare and Home Care. An interesting comprehensive overview Home Care Across Europe furnishes information comparing needs and services among nations. Home care is more important than Readmission data because:

  1. It can affect initial as well as repeat hospitalizations. The focus of readmission rates misses the point of what got the patient in the hospital in the first place. The management of a chronic disease is regarded as more important than its prevention (or at least the prevention of its presenting complications). Digital patient education tools might succeed where verbal encounters and/or written materials haven’t. Digital tools in the form of apps are ideally interactive, can easily be shared with caregivers, contain incentives and have a social component.
  2. It applies to people of all ages, not just patients. As we now know too well, chronic diseases are beginning in childhood, linked to unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. Young people are all digitally ‘connected’.  Therefore digital tools are likely the best (and possibly the only) way to engage them.  Addressing chronic disease prevention in young people is the biggest and best investment in healthcare. Addressing the readmission problem, primarily in the Medicare population misses the boat with regards to population health management and the potential for digital tools in other groups. Aging at home should be applied to ALL ages (after all aging, by definition, is a lifelong process).
  3. The implications for the economy and healthcare outcomes are greater. Thinking of hospital readmissions certainly has the patient as a focus, but limiting the readmission time to 30 or 90 days is really not addressing the core problem which is how to institute processes at home which lead to better outcomes. The importance of medication literacy and reconciliation and prompt follow-up appointments are self-evident. Social workers do their best to assure adequate home health concerns are addressed, but they are limited in purpose to meeting regulatory requirements which many times have nothing to do with the patient’s individual needs or ability to meet them financially. The threshold for furnishing adequate care is many times dictated in an all or nothing fashion based on whether the patient is on Medicaid or not.
  4. The market for digital health technologies is greater. People who are not recovering from a recent hospitalization require less acute monitoring. Devices which are directed towards wellness or the prevention of complications of chronic diseases (as opposed to actually managing the chronic disease) have been declared not necessary for regulation by the FDA. This opens the market for less costly (and potentially more impactful) mobile technologies.
  5. The impact on caregivers is greater. According to a report by the AARP Policy Insititute,  the ‘caregiver support ratio’ will dramatically plunge. Between 2010 and 2030, the population between 45 and 64 years old will increase by 1% while those over 80 will increase by 79%. The ratio is expected to drop from 7 potential caregivers for every high risk person (over 80 years old) to 4 to 1. Aging at home is where the rubber meets the road for caregivers. While the patient is recovering from a recent hospitalization, Medicare pays for some home health services (though woefully little with legislation which continues to decrease services). Digital tools including apps will one day deliver informational resources, logistical help with medical equipment, health aid scheduling and visiting nurse assessment and care. While apps today don’t cover much of this, there is a growing group of apps geared to caregivers. Some examples are: Balance: for Alzheimer’s caregivers, Care Zone, Elder 411, and CarePartners Mobile. Online web-based tools include: Apps for caregivers have begun to attract general media attention.  Aging at home is by far a bigger issue for patients and families than readmissions because of the longer-term benefits to all involved.  Sure, readmissions disrupt life but aging at home is what we think about more and deserves more attention.  Payers including the government need to make aging at home, not an institution, the focus of resources and investment.  It’s what Baby Boomers who are becoming seniors of the present and future will demand.
Posted in death and dying, digital health, health insurance, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT, healthcare reform, media coverage, medical apps, mHealth, mobile health, patient engagement, pharma, remote patient monitoring, smartphone apps | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Hospital Discharge Process: A Call for Technology’s Help?

While being discharged from the hospital even after a minor procedure is not simple (due to regulatory documentation requirements often hard for both patients and physicians to sift through), the process for a patient with co-morbidities after a prolonged stay is daunting.  There are physicians from multiple specialties, various non-physician providers, social worker, and the case manager, all of whom address different discharge-related issues.  It is frustrating for both a provider and patient to experience the “I really can’t answer that question” moment. Lack of effective interdisciplinary communication may lead to medical errors, and either premature or delayed discharges. The date of discharge is estimated soon after admission. Some hospitals have a focus on the clock when planning discharges. If planning occurs too early, it does not account for changes in patient needs and wrong instructions might be given. Transportation and home aid needs are time-sensitive. In contrast, some planning needs to be considered early in the admission when discharge to a non-acute care facility is obvious due to the diagnosis and/or social situation of the patient. One recent study in JAMA from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital identified seven clinical factors predicting hospital readmission: a hemoglobin less than 12 g/dL on discharge, discharge from an oncology service, low serum sodium level on discharge, a procedure (via ICD-9 standards) during admission, non-elective admission, length of stay > 4 days, and number of admissions during the previous year.  Another study examined many predictive models found in the literature.  “Of 7843 citations reviewed, 30 studies of 26 unique models met the inclusion criteria. The most common outcome used was 30-day readmission; only 1 model specifically addressed preventable readmissions. Fourteen models that relied on retrospective administrative data could be potentially used to risk-adjust readmission rates for hospital comparison; of these, 9 were tested in large US populations and had poor discriminative ability…Seven models could potentially be used to identify high-risk patients for intervention early during a hospitalization …, and 5 could be used at hospital discharge…” The study’s conclusion was that most prediction models perform poorly or require improvement. Perhaps one reason for this result lies in the fact that these models traditionally either fall into a clinical or administrative model. I believe that better success might be achieved if administrative and clinical predictive models are combined. Better analytics programs applied real-time in the EHR will facilitate integration of these  perspectives.

The topic of transitional care has received attention because a poor discharge process results in higher readmission rates, a new benchmark focus of Medicare. Hospitals might be very good at meeting regulatory requirements  but the patient’s understanding of diagnoses and instructions (both care and follow-up) is often not clear.  Though required via regulations, the caregiver may not even be included in the process.  I will discuss areas which can benefit from technology. Some of the technology mentioned below might not necessarily be available in the context described but feasible.

  1. Durable equipment needs: The care coordinator is generally the point person regarding the patient’s durable equipment needs upon discharge. Ordering the equipment (specifications and date, time, and place of delivery) might be the job of someone else (therapist, physician). Digital tools can expedite equipment procurement. Analytics from the EHR (mining diagnoses, equipment in use at the end of the hospitalization, expected place of transition, etc) might determine the individual’s ambulation, oxygen, bed, or other equipment requirements. This can act as a preliminary checklist from which the coordinator can start, rather than personally going through the EHR or surveying providers. A digital ordering program can directly interact with the distributor to check product availability and verify delivery. Another useful tool would aggregate equipment distributors which are stratified according to certification (Medicare bidding approval status), cheapest price, and best rated service (by patients and/or institutions).
  2. Visiting nurses: Often the home needs assessment for visiting nurses is done once the patient is discharged. This can be expedited with the help of a caregiver with the assessment completed in the hospital. Consider a tool into which the physician’s orders or recommendations for home nursing are placed and shared with the visiting nurse entity, the patient, and the caregiver. It would include the nursing assessment, and a video of the home environment (a factor in the assessment itself). This would obviate the need for a dedicated assessment visit. Visiting nurses themselves should be equipped with mobile technology which would: document their time schedule for billing, interventions, record and transmit vital signs (measured via digital remote monitors), orders, and contain a digital messaging program.
  3. Scheduling of outpatient provider appointments: Although there is some evidence that in a general medical population early follow-up appointments do not impact readmission rates(notwithstanding a slightly higher emergency department visit and death rate), some patient including those with congestive heart failure  have been shown to benefit from early follow-up. The success of a growing number of commercially available mobile apps intended to streamline scheduling of physician appointments is testimony to the need it is addressing in the non-acute setting.  Patient portal use is a requirement of EHR’s Meaningful Use Stage 2. One way of encouraging patient participation in portal use would be activating it by utilizing a discharge planning scheduling application of the portal at the time of discharge. This fits into an overall strategy of point of engagement implementation of technology.

These are only a few highlights of the complexity of the discharge process. All physicians have dealt with the many questions, complications, and frustration experienced by patients after discharge. A failed process creates unnecessary work, expense and bad outcomes.  Digital health technology’s image to many physicians is represented by the EHR in its present form, which is not what the doctor ordered. It is not intuitive, cumbersome, and encourages impersonal encounters with patients. I will explore in future posts how digital technologies other than the EHR will change medicine in ways that physicians will appreciate them.

Posted in digital health, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT, medical apps, palliative care, patient engagement, remote patient monitoring, smartphone apps, wireless health | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Five Ways Telehealth will Change Medicine

When discussing telehealth, one first needs to refer to definitions. The Health Resources Services Administration defines telehealth as “The use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”  It is differentiated from telemedicine which is focused on remote clinical services. Telehealth today is most commonly associated with video conferencing between a provider and patient. However healthcare encompasses more than the encounter and includes support processes and tools which will hopefully contribute to better outcomes. Electronic health records and interoperability of examination tools with video technology now permit a virtual exam similar to an in-person one. There are now well-defined clinical practice guidelines for telehealth by the American Telehealth Association.  I will discuss ways in which telehealth will provide benefits to both patients and providers.

  1. Telehealth will place the patient as the focal point of care. It is all too apparent that the patient encounter is not what it used to be. Regardless of its duration, there are measures the provider can take to improve the quality of the encounter. Physicians are frustrated by spending more time with the computer than with patients. Nurses too are frustrated with the decrease in direct patient care due to increased time spent with computers. Telehealth video conferencing technology puts emphasis on the literal face to face encounter. It therefore by default puts the patient as the focal point of the encounter. A provider would likely feel more self-conscious looking at a computer and not the patient on the screen in this setting. This technology places the provider outside of his normal comfort zone of the exam room.  A telehealth visit has patients more comfortable in their own environment with the provider as a (virtual) guest.
  2. Telehealth will close gaps in care. Coverage for telehealth varies by state in the USA. Medicare coverage for these services are limited to geographical regions defined by the HHS “…when the originating site (where the patient is) is in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) or in a county that is outside of any Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), defined by HRSA and the Census Bureau, respectively.” While one can understand the utility of closing care access gaps, the gaps themselves have widened over time to include larger and more urban populations. Shortages of certain specialties, most notably mental health are now glaring. In addition, the time and financial costs incurred by the patient and caregiver of an office visit can be markedly decreased with telehealth.
  3. Telehealth will reintroduce humanism back into medicine. I believe that telehealth will demand improvements of providers’ interpersonal skills. The ease of use I believe will likely increase the number of provider interactions, supplemented with data transmitted via other technologies(see below). Telehealth will be expanded to include providers other than physicians as a natural extension of existing care team models. Telehealth will eliminate the ‘routine office visit’ which provides an often useless and uninformative snapshot of clinical time. The encounter will therefore be more need-driven and by extension meaningful. The availability of caregivers to participate in a telehealth encounter will be greater (perhaps even via technology allowing triangulation). There are even capabilities of telehealth visits transmitted from the primary care office room to a specialist. Convenience, less provider distraction, and a more relaxed patient in a familiar environment all support a more humanistic ‘meeting.’
  4. Telehealth will accelerate the use of mobile health technologies. Though one’s first thought of telehealth brings back a vision of a console television from the 1960’s, we are already at a point where telehealth is mobile. A pioneer in this arena is 3GDoctor. Established companies like Verizon have entered the virtual mobile health visit space. Telehealth has been around for about 40 years. Regulators and payers are revisiting telehealth and familiarizing themselves with all mobile health technologies in their efforts to implement tools which can ease pain points in healthcare delivery. The association of mobile health tools with telehealth, the ‘mobilization’ of telehealth itself, and the present adoption of telehealth by healthcare enterprises on a widespread scale will all accelerate the implementation of mobile health strategies. Telehealth adoption is being driven by shortages of specialists in the fields of mental health, neurology, intensive care, and dermatology. Payers are expanding coverage and providers are getting acclimated to remote-based technologies. There is more interoperability with digital IT with telehealth relative to mobile technologies. Mobile health technologies will benefit as a result of all of these factors.
  5.  Telehealth will increase practice options for providers. From a provider standpoint, telehealth might usher in a new type of practitioner. Physicians and other providers might be required to achieve added qualifications in telemedicine. Those drawn to the combination of technology and ‘direct’ patient care might be drawn to telemedicine. Providers will care for patients virtually in different geographical areas, potentially leading to a more enriching professional experience.

I look forward to telehealth becoming a more significant part of mainstream healthcare and to the trails it is blazing for mobile health in general. Ideally I would envision the ATA working with HIMSS to further the cause of the highest quality of care that all digital technologies may provide. From a clinical standpoint they will all be used in a complimentary fashion. For further reading, I would recommend a review by the Information and Technology and Innovation Foundation.


Posted in death and dying, EHR, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Five Reasons Why Digital Pharma Needs Physician Key Opinion Leaders

Physician key opinion leaders (KOLs) have been viewed as a valuable resource in the pharmaceutical (heretofore referred to as Pharma but included are medical device companies) industry. In one study in which 100 KOLS were surveyed, the most important characteristics of a KOL were: “regularly sought out by their colleagues for opinions or advice, speak often at regional or national conferences have published articles in a major journal during the past two years, consider themselves early adopters of new treatments or procedures and help establish protocols for patient care.” In another survey of KOLs in endocrinology taken in 2011, by Thought Leader Select, a KOL consulting firm, 70 percent of veteran KOLs reported that they preferred and expected contact primarily with industry executives or a medical science liaison, versus sales or marketing. Digital Pharma devoted approximately 3% of marketing budgets to Digital in 2013. But did anyone ten years ago think that 60% of retail sales would be via the Internet? Digital Pharma marketing currently is generally categorized as patient-focused or physician-focused. There should be a third and possibly even more effective strategy, that of targeting the patient-physician engagement team. Multichannel marketing will thus also include hybrid customer group marketing.  Physician KOLs will blaze the trail laying the foundation for provider acceptance of shared decision-making. Pharma is in a unique position to facilitate adoption of patient engagement on both provider and patient fronts. Payers can do this but not as easily on a mobile digital level and not easily at the point of care. These new KOLs will not displace traditional ones but will compliment them.  There will be segments of both provider and patient populations which are less (hopefully just initially) receptive to digitally-based marketing tools. These KOLs will have respect by peers on a medical level and will be faces of patient advocacy. They will help physicians adopt the tools as well as work with digital technology tool clinical investigators. I would like to discuss some fundamental arguments for the establishment of physician Digital KOLs.

  1. The efficacy of mobile apps should be evaluated with clinical studies. This will be a new necessary focus of healthcare in the future, from both marketing and clinical outcome perspectives. Mobile apps directed at disease management will likely find themselves on formularies of payers as well as hospitals, similar to drug formularies. One expects that positioning on such lists will be tied to clinical effectiveness (and cost to a much lesser degree than drugs or devices). Clinicians will always ask “Has it been shown to work?” Physician Digital KOLs are those who will present the proof. They will be developing and leading studies (at much less cost and regulatory hurdles than drugs)  which evaluate both clinical outcome as well as the user (provider, patient, and caregiver) experience aspect.
  2. Physicians are at the crossroads of all things medical and Digital. The EHR is seen as the Digital hub of healthcare today. At one point in time this will no doubt shift to the patient portal. The patient portal will ideally become the gateway to connected health data from wireless glucometers, vital sign monitors, more sophisticated sensors, and other patient-derived filtered data. A patient-facing Digital tool will have maximal success of adoption and adherence if recommended by a physician. The clinical loop around the app (pertinent actionable data provided by the patient and hopefully generated treatment recommendations) will necessarily flow through the clinician via the EHR.
  3. KOLs provide the best insight into clinical and workflow problems addressed by digital tools. There is no more obvious an example of a potentially great digital tool that has not been well-received because of its difficulty in conforming to clinical work flow than the electronic health record. It was designed to address regulatory and reimbursement issues, not conform to the way care itself is delivered. Success of digital tools is dependent upon their insertion into clinical workflow (best done at the point of care). In addition,  processes need to be in place to support the tools. Patient behavior determines whether the tool is downloaded and revisited. Adherence is not a new problem. However I would submit that determinants of adherence to medications differ from those of a digital tool. Knowledge about the user experience, connected IT issues, and the education of an entire provider community about mobile health in general are unique to Digital. The impactful integration of a comprehensive digital strategy into Pharma will take years. It will accelerate with the partnership of Pharma companies with other disciplines (mobile health, behaviorists, user experience specialists) and the presence of physician KOLs.
  4. It’s not about the product; it’s about the human experience. As noted above, success of digital tools ultimately hinges on behavior tied to patients consistently using the digital tool and viewing it as a beneficial part of the life experience, translating into enduring motivation. The physician is the human element between the digital tool and the patient. They must be an integral part of delivering the tool and providing the environment in which the digital experience is nurtured and developed. Empathy (much lacking in healthcare today) can be transmitted to a patient only via a human interaction. Suggesting a digital tool to the patient or caregiver conveys empathy by engaging the patient in new ways. KOLs can provide the support, encouragement, and clinical rationale for the adoption of these technologies to their peers. In this way, the human experience of the provider using these tools is improved as well.
  5. Patient engagement necessarily involves the physician. Patient engagement can best be defined as “actions individuals must take to obtain the greatest benefit of healthcare services available to them.” Implicit in this definition is that the best information (and tools communicating it) has been supplied to the patient. The best patient care includes shared decision-making by an engaged patient. The physician closes the loop and is a therefore a critical component of the patient engagement tool. Physician Digital KOLs are most appreciative of the role of digital tools in the developing focus of patient engagement. A tool is a solution only if used in a context of patient engagement. Teaching how these tools can therefore be turned into solutions by providers is the mission of physician Digital KOLs.

It is clear that Pharma sees the patient (and the public) as customers. If the ‘sale’ is disease state awareness, that can be accomplished (within the framework of digital and health literacy considerations).  However, the next step is adoption (i.e. filling the prescription) and then adherence. Here is where the rubber needs to meet the road. Digital will succeed (on many fronts) more than traditional channels. However, a new breed of marketer as well as KOL is needed. I call upon Pharma to help take patient engagement to the next step via a new unique marketing strategy.

Posted in digital health, FDA, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT, informatics, medical apps, mHealth, mobile health, patient advocacy, patient engagement, remote patient monitoring, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Five Reasons Why Physician IT Champions are Needed

It has been 5 years since the passage of the HITECH Act portion of the Affordable Care Act. The purpose of HITECH was “…to promote the adoption and meaningful use of health information technology.” While the result of this legislation has been the significant increase in the adoption of EHRs, most of the potential benefits of digital technology have yet to be demonstrated. there are multiple reasons for this lack of proof. Firstly, the portions of Meaningful Use directed at patient management (versus documentation) have not been fully implemented. In addition, According to an excellent report ‘Lessons from the Literature on Electronic Health Record implementation’ by The Urban Institute, “…Training best practices include obtaining organizational commitment to invest in training, assessing users’ skills and training needs, selecting appropriate training staff, matching training to users’ needs, using multiple training approaches, leveraging the skills of role models (clinical leaders, champions, super-users, training coordinators), providing training support throughout the implementation process, and retraining to optimize use of the EHR…” I would like to focus on the physician IT champion (either on an enterprise or office level) as a key component of this strategy. The role of the physician IT champion is to keep physicians up to date on the changes to the EHR and for maintaining physician “buy-in” to ongoing improvement projects involving the EHR.

  1. There will be improvement and expansion of Digital healthcare technology. The EHR is among the first large scale forays of Digital into mainstream healthcare (imaging was first). The near future will see expansion to include mobile medical apps and telehealth. I believe that standardization of EHRs, the growing focus on development of mobile health strategies (as described in the 3rd Annual HIMSS Analytics Mobile Survey), and a large body of pending telehealth legislation will all accelerate this expansion. Physician IT champions will assist in implementation of the EHR as well as integration of these new interoperable pieces. Home grown enterprise IT projects involving  analytics, clinical decision support tools, registries or any combination of these requires an intermediary between the IT department and clinicians during both  development and implementation.
  2. EHRs will continue to become more complex. As EHRs incorporate more data related to either regulatory requirements or changes in the IT structure, physicians who are operating on marginal familiarity with the system will become overwhelmed. The more familiar one is with the basic unit of operation, the easier transitions will become. The IT champion is the clinical face of IT in the trenches. Interacting with champions with good communication skills, knowledge base, and empathy will be the difference between an IT success and failure. The imperative of implementing more complex IT integrations across increasing numbers of affiliated care entities (either within an enterprise or as part of an ACO) will benefit from physician IT champions who can support local clinical IT leaders. Many enterprises are now either using or shopping for their second EHR system for various reasons. As more complex regulatory requirements are mandated in later stages of Meaningful Use, the role of physician IT champions will by necessity increase to assure success.
  3. EHR buy-in is a trickle down phenomenon. Physicians are the leaders of the healthcare team. An unhappy leader is detrimental to patient care in multiple ways. Frustration and anger directed toward the EHR sends a message to other team members including clinical and clerical, discouraging them from embracing, customizing, and respecting the technology. This in turn can increase risk of privacy breaches, mistakes in data input and transfer, and ultimately clinical errors, all of which are risk management liabilities. A physician who is not well-trained has an increased chance of misguidedly having a negative attitude towards the technology. In turn, the opportunity to transmit good IT practice (which makes it a better user experience) to junior or new team members will be lost.
  4. Quality of patient care is at stake. The EHR is fertile ground for both improving care and for making clinical mistakes. The old adage ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ is no truer than when applied to the EHR. An IT champion sending the message that good IT practice will not only make care easier but safer, with the patient always at the center of the discussion, will garner the loyalty of all providers. There are many limitations of present day EHRs which are barriers to optimal patient care. This will change over time and IT champions will be on the forefront of providing those improvements either within existing systems or conveying user recommendations for newer systems. Establishment of this relationship gives IT leadership a clinical face which providers can relate to. I see it analogous to a neighborhood with a foot patrol police presence.
  5. The physician champion role is not a new one. The institution of physician champions in the clinical arena has been shown to be successful. Extension of this concept to the IT sector is a welcomed prospect when one considers that the EHR was unfamiliar territory initially to most physicians. The combination of limited initial training, ongoing time constraints, and increasing complexity beg for creation of such a role. Physicians have been familiar with the role of key opinion leader and other physician leadership roles. The IT champion would be among the most appreciated of all.

The AMA recently issued an executive summary entitled ‘Improving Care: Priorities to Improve Electronic Health Record Usability.’ This identifies concerns that the EHR vendors should address. The implementation of a system including physician IT champions addresses issues which users need to improve upon to maximize benefits and minimize liabilities. More importantly, better EHR usability facilitated by the IT champion can improve physician job satisfaction.

Posted in digital health, EHR, healthcare economics, Healthcare IT, healthcare reform, healthcare vendors, IT security, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment