Engaging Patients with an Apple and Health Apps: Watches Are No Longer Just for Telling Time

Today patients are increasingly connected.  The fastest growing demographic on Twitter is actually those that are between 45 and 65 years old.  Our patients are becoming better informed and are flocking to the internet and to social media to discuss and learn more about disease.  Prevention of disease is becoming more of a priority in our healthcare system as we begin to adjust to the mandates provided for in the Affordable Care Act and physicians are now expecting patients to take a more active role in their healthcare.  In the last 5 years, the concept of the electronic patient has emerged and is becoming more and more prevalent among mainstream patient populations.  These patients often come to office visits armed with information and data collected on the internet and are very technologically savvy.  They embrace new devices and are eager to track health indicators such as blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate through easy to use phone applications.

This week, Apple intends to announce a new smartwatch and a group of associated health applications.  These innovations will further allow the electronic patient to become more of a mainstream phenomenon.  However, in order to be effective, physicians and other healthcare providers must embrace these technologies and begin to better understand their utility in all patient populations.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the announcement of the new smartwatch is expected to introduce no less than ten new sensors for monitoring health indicators.  Apple has created a data repository that will allow health related information to be stored (with the user’s permission) and directed to healthcare providers if so desired.  This assimilation and collection of massive amounts of health indicator data may be a significant game changer in the fight against chronic disease.  With many patients, compliance with medication or lifestyle modification plans is a challenge.  Many diseases such as hypertension do not produce immediate ill health effects–rather they accumulate over time.  However, if we can clearly demonstrate to patients the positive responses to interventions on a daily (or even hourly basis) they may be much more likely to comply with prescribed treatment plans.  Glancing at a smartwatch and noting a response to exercise or to a completed dose of medication can be a powerful motivational tool.

What if all of the data is collected simply by wearing a watch?

If we make collection and organization of information simple and user friendly, then important information can be transmitted to a physician who can review the data prior to the next face to face office encounter.  Real time feedback can then be provided to the patient and this may ultimately result in increased engagement and may actually spur change in habits or behaviors that are detrimental to a particular patient’s health.  Moreover, according to the WSJ, the new Apple operating system will include a Health icon that will allow for the development of a dashboard with many health indicators that are easily accessible in one place–lab results, heart rate, blood pressure, weight–even calories consumed and burned in a given time period.  The engaged patient can see what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong and can track improvements in habits rather quickly.  Having the data all in one place will likely increase compliance and improve overall health of the adopters of this technology.

What about security of sensitive personal healthcare data?

As with most new advances in medicine, there are significant concerns about data breaches and compliance with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.  According to a story in the New York Times, Apple is working with application developers as well as the federal government in order to ensure that any stored or tracked healthcare data will remain secure.  Partnerships with application designers, insurance companies, healthcare systems and physicians will be critical to the success of the new Apple smartwatch.  As these new technologies are rolled out and continue to develop, efforts to secure data will continue to evolve.

The development of new and exciting healthcare technologies and applications will continue to bolster the development and of the growing number of electronic patients.  Ultimately, the Apple smartwatch and other soon to be developed health indicator monitors, trackers and data repositories will only serve to further engage both patients and doctors and, in my opinion, significantly improve our ability to intervene EARLY and prevent the terrible consequences of chronic disease.

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