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People as Point of Care

June 10, 2019
Posted by Tyler Nall

The democratization of healthcare data is changing patients’ relationships with their physicians, their health, and the larger healthcare system.

At one point in the not-so-distant past, the primary care practitioner’s office was the heart of healthcare in the United States — but that’s changing, and quickly. Though PCPs remain an integral component of America’s healthcare system, new players, new technology, and new patient expectations have shifted the playing field.

This changing tide shows no sign of turning back any time soon. Though 26 percent of all U.S. adults lack a primary care physician, millennials are driving the trend: 45 percent of adults under 30 don’t have a PCP, relying instead on easy-to-access, walk-in-friendly urgent care facilities for primary care. Similarly, 40 percent of millennials and 19 percent of Baby Boomers utilize telemedicine to contact their physicians in place of traditional doctor’s visits.

That’s not to say that patients — and millennials in particular — don’t care about their health. If anything, it reveals the opposite: that more patients are taking their healthcare into their own hands. Relatedly, 72 percent of internet users have searched for health information online — but this shift of healthcare ownership goes beyond the Google and WebMDs of the world.

The Behavioral Shift: New World, New Patients, New Needs

The dethroning of the doctor’s office in healthcare isn’t so much a result of patients changing or doctors changing, but rather, a reflection of the world changing. The vast majority of patients spend about 15 minutes of face-to-face time with their doctors every six months. In the Uber and Postmates era, consumers simply won’t tolerate having to wait half a year to get their questions answered. 

But wait times alone aren’t the only concern. The democratization of healthcare information in the digital age has made patients increasingly aware of their doctors’ capacity for error. The situation is exacerbated by short and infrequent doctor visits, which can prevent doctors from ascertaining the full story of their patients’ health.

For that reason, increasingly proactive patients are taking steps to ask and answer their own questions. This means patients are digging deeper into health-related content and that publishers are creating more content to meet their demands. Meanwhile, unprecedented access to personal health data is both fueling the fire and fanning the flames.

Yes, we’re talking wearables — those buzz-worthy devices that have been declared both a boon and a bane to society, with the reality likely falling somewhere in the middle. The fact of the matter is that never before in human history have we had access to so much data about our own bodies, from sleeping behavior to overall fitness and blood oxygen levels. The sheer volume of information available has the potential to cause confusion among patients. However, if this spike in self-knowledge results in better care, it’s well worth the potential drawbacks.

The Ultimate Solution: Bringing Patient Care Technologies Together

Much of the confusion over the new role patients play in their own care can simply be chalked up to growing pains. Think about it in the context of another rapid-growth technology: ten to fifteen years ago, every single cell phone required a different charger. Upgrading phones meant tossing out every accessory that you’d bought to go with your old one.

Now, all cell phone chargers are essentially divided into Apple or Android. Ask a room full of people if “anyone has a charger they can lend me,” and the answer is bound to be yes. Cell phone manufacturers overcame their initial inefficiencies to build a more streamlined system. Now, it’s up to the healthcare industry to do the same.

Currently, we’re in a period of fragmented, disconnected information systems. There are divides between all the digital tools that speak to a patient’s health — their wearables, their electronic health records, and the content they consume. That’s not just an inconvenience; it prevents any one party from seeing the whole picture, eliminating major opportunities to improve patient care. 

It’s an issue we’re seeing across industries as the pace of data production skyrockets and analytics struggles to keep up. According to an IDC study, 90% of all digital information is unstructured content, meaning that data is stored in separate repositories and never linked in a way that allows for larger conclusions. In other words, when applied to healthcare, we have an incredible amount of new health data that isn’t as actionable as it should be due to the lack of appropriate ways to aggregate and understand it.

Our new, patient-centric, digital-first era demands a synchronicity that hasn’t risen yet but that I’m confident is fast approaching. Once we’ve accomplished that, better patient outcomes and more meaningful doctor-patient relationships await.

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