- Jun 2 2014
As the world’s healthcare systems undergo important transitions, the development of healthcare technology bridges cultural and economic divides. What is your perspective on these developments?
Matthew Holt: The primary technological focus continues to be the development of cloud-based, software-services in response to the growing amount of medical data stored in the cloud. Medical professionals and patients can now access and share data with anyone on any handheld device at any time.
If we look at specific countries, we find various degrees of technological advancements: telehealth receives a lot of support in Brazil; hospitals in the UK have access to funds for technology that promotes patient safety and better communication.
Wearable devices that monitor everything from ambulatory blood pressure to heart rate, sleep apnea and sun exposure are all the rage in the U.S. and Europe.
One constant is that patients everywhere are increasingly motivated to take greater control of their own health. For this, all one needs today is an Internet connection! The once challenging problem of accessing information has virtually disappeared. Communication has become synonymous with care. Thanks to the multi-functional nature of cell phones, city-based doctors can now share information with rural health workers, further demonstrating how simple, readily available devices and tools can bring about truly positive changes.
What are some of these positive changes?
M.H.: Access to information often means more knowledge, more choices and greater peace of mind. Thanks to the Web, people can easily access relevant medical information in a user-friendly way that helps them better understand their conditions. With the Internet, there has been an explosion in the number of people connecting and comparing data with others who have similar ailments. In fact, some of the most active e-patients know almost as much as some doctors!
Access to this kind of knowledge improves the patient’s Quality of Life on a practical and an emotional level. Healthcare technology has also made it possible for patients to meet with doctors online, thereby reducing time spent driving to appointments and sitting idly in waiting rooms.
Professional caregivers are using electronic medical records to track activities, support decisions and communicate better with patients and each other. Caregivers who care for elderly parents or disabled children can now benefit from centralized online tools like shared calendars and action plans. Care.com for instance helps individuals locate nurses or obtain health-related assistance in their neighborhood. All of these technologies are designed to provide patients and caregivers with greater comfort, ease and a sense of community. As a result they are able to spend more quality time together.
Do you think robotics and artificial intelligence have a long-term future in the medical profession?
M.H.: A growing number of patients are able to communicate with avatars and well, what I find particularly interesting is the use of avatars in patient scanning and monitoring. Ellie, a computer invented by a Frenchman in California, speaks and responds intelligently to patients, and can also understand what they are doing. Through natural language programming, Ellie picks up valuable information, particularly indicators of anxiety or depression, based on the patient’s tone of voice, word choice and body language.
Medical experts have found that they can make a diagnosis based on this type of avatar interaction. And because Ellie can ask the same questions in the same way every time, it has become possible to build a database on what is considered “normal” vs. “anxious” behavior. The next step is to use this information as a screening tool to detect illnesses and prescribe treatment before conditions get out of hand.
Can new technology actually help medical professionals behave more compassionately?
M.H.: There are studies and testimonials confirming the build-up of frustration when patients feel they are being shut out of their own care. This sense of isolation slows the healing process. If we get it right, technology can provide an ongoing proximity with patients accompanying them throughout the healing process. This essentially means that new health technology will feature empathetic interfaces that increasingly incorporate emotion into the design and the communication principles – changing the focus from functionality to human contact. I think the use of automated technology, or computer-generated avatars that look and act like a doctor, will ramp up as a result.
Could these technologies, even empathetic ones, be perceived as depersonalizing healthcare?
M.H.: There are certain situations—for example discussing personal details—where people feel more comfortable speaking to a machine rather than to a human being. That said, automated voice-messaging needs to be as humanlike as possible. Patients are increasingly intolerant of automated systems that do not recognize what they are saying.
Eventually, the line between speaking with an actual healthcare professional and a machine will blur—just as it has within other industries, such as banking, consumer goods, and telecommunications.
How are patients becoming more responsible for their own health?
M.H.: Tools like Symcat and companies like DoubleCheckMd make it possible for patients to access a large, accurate body of knowledge, leading to a perception of increased control over their situation. Greater, more transparent knowledge in this sense helps transform the passive health observer into the active health participant.
Providers often want to learn how to empower patients to have a more hands-on approach to their own care. A non-profit organization called the Society for Participatory Medicine was created to do just this. Through continuous collaboration, communication and cooperation, it helps providers encourage and value their patients as full partners.
This in turn enables patients to further shift from being passengers to being responsible drivers of their own health.
What are the challenges facing developers, caregivers and patients moving forward?
M.H.: Some healthcare payment systems haven’t really evolved since their creation—in some countries this means since the 19th century. Patient reimbursements for e-visits, for example, are still incredibly complicated. The biggest medical institutions are the same as they were five decades ago. The highly specialized medical professions are warring with each other, but also trying to defend themselves against the outside world. Developers that try to introduce new health-related technology must do so within these existing antiquated systems. Patients and caregivers are very receptive, even eager for them because they have witnessed how these technologies improve the quality of their lives. But they have to exercise patience because a lot of new technology cannot take off until the current systems evolve.
To learn more, consult the global healthcare magazine Quality of Life Experiences
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