How the digital world is affecting the modern patient


A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute a guest post for the Saint Elizabeth Health Care CEO Blog. I decided to focus on the topic of how the digital world is affecting the modern patient. Below is my full blog post. You can also read the slightly condensed post directly on the SEHC Blog if you prefer.

Over the course of what is now almost a decade, I’ve had the pleasure of working and consulting with numerous health organizations that have wished to engage in the digital space in a more strategic and coordinated manner. This has likely been driven by the significant increase in content, discussion, and interest surrounding the impact of the modern digital/social media landscape on health. Unfortunately, in many cases these discussions still aren’t occurring at the most senior levels due to the plethora of other day-to-day challenges the health sector currently faces.

As part of my consulting process with health organizations, I like to conduct one-on-one senior management interviews to get a sense of each leader’s priorities, fears, expectations and general knowledge level of the digital space before making any recommendations. What I often tend to find is that there is still a significant knowledge gap in terms of the strategic importance of the digital space and the subsequent societal and even cultural/anthropological changes it has triggered in terms of our digital habits.

In light of this, many of my reports include “preparation phases” focused on education aimed at reducing that knowledge gap and ensuring that there is at least a foundational level of senior management understanding of key digital health trends and the impact they are having on health organizations. I have decided to share three of these with you in this blog post.

Searching for health information online

According to Statistics Canada, 64% of Canadians searched for medical or health related information online in 2010. That was three years ago! Estimates now range closer to 70-75% as internet usage has gone up and the amount of available health content has risen exponentially. In Canada, the most common health-related searchers are for diseases, lifestyle factors (diet, nutrition and exercise) and symptoms, drugs, medications and alternative therapies. The search behaviour varies by age and sex. Those 45 and older are more likely to search information on specific diseases when compared to the 18-44 age group. Women are more likely to seek information about specific diseases than men. In fact, searching for health information is so common and widely used that the aggregate Google search trend data is used by many health organizations to predict flu outbreaks among other things.

What this means to health organizations: Web presence trumps your website. Google is your real homepage. Understand your audience needs by studying search trend data and create content across a variety of platforms based on these insights. Make sure that your content is unique and provides some sort of added specific value that is sought out by your audience. Creating yet another “how to eat healthy guide” won’t cut it unless this is what you specialize in.

Patient empowerment

Online patient networks where patients are able to share their healthcare and health system experiences such as PatientsLikeMe and HealthUnlocked, are empowering patients and altering the doctor/patient relationship. PatientsLikeMe is an online community, initially for patients with rare or life-altering disease states, which is now open to patients with all conditions and has over 200 000 members. HealthUnlocked, an online patient network in the UK, hosts over 200 health communities and has over 700 000 active users and over 1 000 000 contributions gathered from patients, medical professionals and researchers. The availability of personal health data from these patient communities provides an opportunity to aggregate information which provides valuable content for patients and could provide meaningful clinical data for healthcare providers.

What this means to health organizations: Patients are increasingly tapping into public online social networks to find comfort, supplemental information and potential treatment options to complement their existing health care provider. Browse through these communities, understand how they work and learn to adapt to a world where a dedicated patient can often gain more aggregate knowledge about a specific ailment than their health care provider can provide them with. Keep in mind this isn’t just another algorithm-based health info search tool. This is real patients talking to other real patients that happen to be going through similar medical ailments.

Mobile health applications

The smartphone penetration rate in Canada is now over 52%. Approximately 70% of smartphone users say they have downloaded apps (of any kind) to their cell phone, up significantly from March 2011 where that figure stood at 58%. Those who have downloaded apps to their phones have downloaded 12 apps on average, of which roughly 2 were purchased (as opposed to downloaded for free). Mobile health applications (health apps) run on smartphones and tablets and help users connect to services and resources traditionally accessed via a computer or a telephone. In 2011 over 29% of adults in the United States had downloaded a health app to a cell phone or tablet computer. Use of health apps is more common in urban than rural areas, and 30-49 year-olds are as likely as 18-29 year-olds to download a health app. It is only adults age 50 and older who lag behind on this trend. There are currently numerous studies underway in Canada that will report on the types of apps most commonly downloaded by Canadians. Opportunities for health apps are endless. They can be used to record health information, manage lifestyle choices and connect those in need with emergency services. PulsePoint is my favourite example of this last kind of health app. It uses GPS technology in smart phones to connect those trained in CPR with those requiring emergency assistance. Be sure to watch the PulsePoint video to get a sense of how it works.

What this means to health organizations: While there is no denying that mobile health apps are incredibly popular, that is still not a good enough reason to rush into creating your own. Ensure that any app you create in 2013+ has some sort of unique “utility” in mind. An app merely providing information about your organization quickly becomes “mobile screen road kill” (assuming it is even downloaded at all). As a starting point before tackling apps, ensure your existing website is mobile friendly.

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