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Patient-Centered Digital Health Tools: The Future of Equitable Telemedicine

Updated: Oct 2, 2023


Picture of Elliott Wilson, Digital Transrmation Special Interest Group Co-chair for American Telemedicine Association

In a recent webinar, I had the honor of moderating a panel that brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, each an expert in their field. The panel included Dr. Marijka Grey from CommonSpirit Health, Dr. Therese Canares from Johns Hopkins and and CurieDx, and Jason Bellet from Eko Health. The conversation was rich, insightful, and timely.


Perspective is Key

The first thing that struck me during the webinar was the range of perspectives. We had a representative blend of varying professional backgrounds. Dr. Grey, for instance, brought in the viewpoint of large healthcare systems, while Dr. Canares offered insights from the academic and research sectors. Jason Bellet, on the other hand, provided the lens of a digital health entrepreneur. This blend of perspective is crucial because healthcare is not a monolith; it's a complex ecosystem that requires multi-faceted solutions.

I was also grateful to learn from the panelists how their lived experience has led them to focus on the topic at hand. These lived experiences of our panelists enriched the conversation. I was struck by Dr. Canares' story a mother who had to delay care for her young child at the emergency room due to her employment situation. Her work in low-resource settings has given her a unique understanding of healthcare inequities, which she brought with her to the discussion.


Defining Digital Health Tools

There is likely a different definition for "Digital Health" for every person you ask. So in the context of our recent webinar, I'll describe my own definition for Digital Health or Digital Health Transformation. When I talk to my clients about digital health, we talk about applied AI, which encompasses everything from predictive analytics in diagnostics and surveillance to ambient data capture via spatial imaging. It includes Virtual Care which goes beyond telemedicine to include remote patient monitoring and asynchronous care models. It includes, Patient Engagement technologies like digital front door and gamification which are making patients active participants in their healthcare journey. Add to this the emerging fields of Reality Overlay, Digital Therapeutics, and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), and you have a comprehensive view of what we mean by Digital Health.

However, it's equally important to clarify what we're not focusing on. While underlying technologies like 5G and cloud computing are transformative, they're not the centerpiece of our discussion. The same goes for broader technological advancements like quantum computing, nanotechnology, and foundational machine learning models. These are crucial for the larger tech ecosystem but are not directly impacting digital health in the way our core topics are. By delineating these boundaries, we can zero in on the technologies and methodologies that most urgently affect healthcare equity and accessibility.


Digital Health Tools to Elevate Telemedicine

I'll highlight two technologies that represent the transformative power of digital health tools and how they're elevating the telemedicine landscape, particularly in addressing healthcare inequities.

First up is Eko Health's smart stethoscope, a device that's far more than a digital version of its analog predecessor. This stethoscope is equipped with AI algorithms capable of screening for a range of cardiovascular diseases. Now, imagine deploying this technology in remote or under-served communities. Local healthcare providers, who may not have specialized training in cardiology, can use this device to offer a level of care that was previously unattainable. This is not just about making healthcare more efficient; it's about making specialized medical services accessible where they are most needed, thereby breaking down geographical and socioeconomic barriers to equitable healthcare.

Next, is a groundbreaking project at Johns Hopkins that Dr. Canares mentioned. Her work at CurieDx leverages computer vision to diagnose diseases like strep throat using images captured by a smartphone. Think about the implications of this in low-resource settings. By integrating computer vision technology into existing telemedicine platforms, we're not just adding a feature; we're democratizing access to medical diagnosis faster and with less disruption to people's lives. This means that a mother in any medically underserved area (rural or not) can get a quick and accurate diagnosis for her child without having to travel miles to the nearest city or take (often unpaid) time off work to care for you little one.

Both of these examples illustrate how digital transformation is not merely an upgrade but a paradigm shift in how we think about and deliver healthcare. By layering these advanced technologies onto telemedicine, we're not just improving healthcare; we're making it more equitable.


Transformation Doesn't Always Mean "New"

Innovation isn't always about the new; sometimes, sometimes, it's about repurposing what's already there. Dr. Grey from CommonSpirit Health highlighted this with the use of SMS in healthcare. While texting is hardly new, its application in healthcare can be transformative. CommonSpirit uses SMS for appointment reminders and follow-up care instructions, a move that has significantly reduced no-show rates. This is more than a logistical win; it's an equity win. SMS is accessible even in low-income communities, effectively lowering barriers to healthcare access.

Dr. Grey noted that this simple yet effective strategy has led to better resource allocation, allowing healthcare providers to reinvest in other areas. More importantly, it addresses healthcare inequity by using a more universally accessible technology. It's a reminder that innovation doesn't have to be new to be impactful; sometimes, the most transformative solutions are those that are readily available but thoughtfully applied.


Insights and Takeaways

The webinar was a treasure trove of insights, but three key takeaways stood out as particularly impactful. First, Dr. Grey emphasized the critical role of data in decision-making. I was impressed with how she described her organization's approach to decision making regarding technology investment. She pointed out that any technology adopted must not only be scalable but also have a robust strategy for addressing Social Determinants of Health (SDOH). This is not just about collecting data; it's about leveraging it to make informed decisions that can reduce healthcare inequities at scale.

Then, both Dr. Canares and Dr. Grey stressed the importance of patient-centered care. They reminded us that understanding the patient's context is crucial. Whether it's the ability to afford medications or even maintain a stable phone number, these factors can significantly impact the effectiveness of digital health interventions. It's not just about the technology; it's about how the technology fits into the lives of the people it's meant to serve.

Lastly, Jason brought up an often-overlooked aspect of telemedicine: the human connection. He noted that small details, like a background sign or a pin worn during a virtual consultation, can make a significant difference in how comfortable patients feel. This is a subtle but powerful reminder that technology should enhance, not replace, the human elements of healthcare.


Where to Go for More

The whole of the conversation is available on demand via the American Telemedicine Association as part of its Telehealth Awareness Week webinar series. If you'd like to learn more about the ATA and participate in the Digital Transformation Special Interest Group (I'm biased here, but it's a really great group), you can find out more information on membership at www.americantelemed.org.

If you're exploring new ways to deploy digital transformation tools to elevate your Digital Health strategy, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn or click here to learn more about how Flying Pig Consulting can help you make your strategy take flight. Note: This content has been generated with the assistance of artificial intelligence. It has been reviewed, edited, and refined by a human to ensure accuracy, relevance, and coherence.


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