Category Archives: Doctor Patient Relationships

Quit Beating A Dead Horse (and wasting money): The Day of the Pharma Rep is Done

As I sit behind a computer in my office today at the Physician’s “workstation”, I am baffled at the steady flow of Pharmaceutical representatives that flow into our office on a daily basis. Each rep comes in with a fancy glossy print detailing the data concerning their particular drug. My office is busy—patients are coming in and out and medical assistants are busy checking vitals and verifying medications (and of course, entering data into the computer system EMR). Yet the reps come in and stand at the workstation until someone acknowledges them. They stand, and stand—often distracting clinical staff. These reps are given a quota of “visits” they must make by their superiors. Many times they will arrive with their direct supervisor in tow—they are evaluated by the relationship they may (or may not have) with a group of physicians. But my time with each and every patient I see is limited due to the increased electronic medical record work that I must do—I feel bad for the reps (it is not their fault that they are placed in this role)—but Do I really have time to stop the endless flow of clinical work to speak to them? Does a Pharma rep actually provide any real value to me or to my patients? Would a “detail” presentation by any rep change my practice?

The Days of Yore

In the past, pharma reps were a source of “samples” that I could provide to my poorer patients who could not afford their meds. This was a real value—I depended on reps to provide these medications for my patients. In the days of print only access to journals, I may not have been as current with the medical literature. Reps would often come in and discuss breaking trial news that I had not yet had time to read about. Often they would discuss upcoming trials and plans for the future. We would have spirited “academic” debates over drugs, trial design and outcomes or endpoints. When you were unable to attend scientific meetings, the pharma rep would often be able to summarize the latest trials after they were released.

Now, my institution no longer allows “samples” to be left, and honestly, if I need a drug rep to share the latest data with me then I am not doing my job as a physician. Online access to immediate data from trials upon their release makes “keeping current” much easier. Social Media and other digital tools make it possible to attend national academic meetings such as the American Heart Association annual scientific session or the American College of Cardiology meetings allow everyone to be virtually present for ground breaking presentations of Late Breaking Clinical Trials.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the people who choose to be pharma reps—many are smart, classy, well-meaning folks. However, there is a lot wrong with the antiquated pharma rep sales model in today’s world. Modern technology and easy access to data allows physicians to keep up with the latest clinical trials. Pharmaceutical detailing by reps is not very helpful—it is scripted and based solely on what the FDA allows them to say (think on label vs off label). Reps are not allowed to talk about upcoming trials or discuss any off label applications.

What’s the Answer?

Drug prices in the United States are far too high. Pharma will argue (rightfully so) that the costs of research and development (as well as marketing) drive those costs. However, I think that there are ways to lower costs without sacrificing R and D. I would argue that a restructuring of the pharma “sales force” would save significant dollars. I would also argue that making the FDA approval process more streamlined, faster and more agile would also lower costs. The current Congress is working on the “Cures Act” that will address some of the issues associated with the FDA process. Ultimately, I think that pharma must adjust to the way medicine is now practiced. There is no role for the pharmaceutical representative in the office or hospital. These individuals have absolutely no bearing on my choice to prescribe a particular drug and do not contribute to my continuing medical education. Nearly 75% of all Americans go to the internet after a doctor’s visit. Almost all physicians can access the internet immediately from a smartphone or tablet. Pharma should move their marketing and sales efforts to the digital space exclusively. There is no role for in person physician-pharma rep interaction in medicine today. Use these dollars in better ways—fund patient assistance programs, improve treatments and fund clinical trials. Stop spending money on lunches for the office staff and on fancy packaging. Glossy detail cards are simply tossed in the trash as soon as the representative leaves the building. Focus more on patients. The days of the drug rep have come to an end.

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What Would YOU Do With An Extra Second….Better Decide Soon, Its the Day of the Leap Second!

In medicine, I have learned that time is a precious commodity. Too often, when life slips away and patients and families wish they had just a little more time. For physicians, a little more time may make the difference in a patient’s ultimate outcome and sometimes makes the difference between making it home in time for a family dinner. Today, we add ONE second to the international world clock at midnight. Over fifty years ago, world clocks began keeping time with atomic clocks that are governed by oscillations of an atom–which are determined in part by the rotation of the earth. The earth’s rotation is slowing over time, and in order to keep these clocks coordinated with the earth’s rotation, we must add an extra second from time to time.

What Can You Do With An Extra Second?

While a second may seem like an insignificant amount of time, when you are a careful steward of time much can be accomplished quickly. An extra second can have a substantial impact—Here is my list of possible plans for my extra second:

1.  One more chance to say “I love you”

Too often, the pace of the world gets in the way. We forget those most dear to us and allow our daily challenges—both at work and at home- to take center stage. I may use this extra moment in time to make sure that my wife and daughter know exactly how I feel. Time is unwavering and unyielding. Time rarely stops—actually almost never stops—but today we have a brief pause. We must use it wisely and take advantage of the extra “time” with loved ones and remind ourselves that time spent with those we love is precious

2. An opportunity to pause before pressing send on an angry email

In the heat of the moment, many of us have sent a note that we wish we could have back. Email and electronic communication can be unforgiving. Just think if we were able to use the extra second we are given to pause before sending an angry reply. That one second to ponder the implications of an email response may actually save even more time by preventing hurt feelings, damaged relationships and tarnished reputations.

3. A chance to pause and take a breath

Lets’ face it, today’s world moves at a very quick pace. Electronic communication, social media and instant messaging leave each of us with very little down time. Just recently I flew to Italy from New York and was amazed to have active internet service for the entire flight. Rather than unplug and enjoy the beginning of my vacation, I remained connected and engaged through the flight. Much can be gained from taking a few minutes to meditate, unplug and recharge. All of us can benefit from stepping away from the business of a hectic day—just one second may help relieve stress and recharge the mind–Maybe I should use the extra second to take a deep breath, reflect and relax. If a 5minute meditation works, why wouldn’t a 1 second mini meditation work as well?

4. Send a tweet

Social Media is an excellent example of how we can reach out to others—all over the world—in a matter of seconds. We are now more connected than ever. Twitter brings doctors and patients together and makes the world a smaller place. Twitter provides for the brief communication of ideas, exchange of information and socialization all in a moment. One second is all that is needed to send a tweet. At midnight tonight, I may decide to use my extra second to push send and publish a tweet.  Maybe I will connect with a new friend or colleague.  Maybe my tweet will reach a patient suffering with chronic disease and provide them with new hope.  Maybe my tweet will make someone laugh, or (if I am really lucky) make a lonely person smile.

Tonight, we have a rare opportunity to stop time. At midnight we are able to take back time—if only for a second. I have shared a few of my ideas. What will YOU choose to do with it? Time is ticking away–we have to decide soon how to use that extra time.  Midnight will be upon us soon.  How we use it could change a life….or result in time for one more Zzzz…

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Sharing Bad News or Keeping Secrets—How Physician Communication Impacts Patients and Families

Doctors and Patients bond over time. Information exchange, education and sharing of expertise are critical activities that add to the effective practice of medicine. Delivering bad news is unfortunately an unpleasant part of a physician’s job. Honesty, empathy and clear communication are essential to delivering news to patients and their families—even when the news is unpleasant or unexpected. While communication is an integral part of the practice of medicine, not all healthcare providers are able to relay information or test results in a way that is easily digested and processed by patients. Some physicians may avoid delivering bad news altogether—often keeping patients in the dark. While a paternalistic approach to medicine was accepted as the status quo for physician behavior in the 1950s, patients now expect to play a more active role in their own care. Patients have a right to demand data and understand why their healthcare providers make particular diagnostic and treatment decisions.

Recently, a disturbing report indicated that in a database of Medicare patients who were newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, only 45% were informed of their diagnosis by their physician. While shocking, these statistics mirror the way in which cancer diagnoses were handled in the 1950s with many doctors choosing not to tell patients about a devastating health problem. With the advent of better cancer therapies and improved outcomes, now we see than nearly 95% of all patients are informed of their cancer diagnosis by their physician.

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How can this be? Why would a physician NOT tell a patient about a potentially life changing diagnosis?

I think that there are many reasons for this finding in Alzheimer’s disease and that we must address these issues in order to provide ethical and timely care to our patients.

  1. Time constraints: Electronic documentation requirements and non-clinical duties allow for less time spent with each patient. In order to deliver bad news such as a terminal diagnosis, a responsible physician must not only spend time carefully delivering a clear message but must also be available to handle the reaction and questions that will inevitably follow. Many physicians may avoid discussing difficult issues due to the lack of time available to help the patient and family process a diagnosis. We must create ways to diminish the administrative burden on physicians and free them up to do more of what they do best—care for patients. More reasonable and meaningful documentation requirements must be brought forward. Currently, many physicians spend far more time typing on a computer rather than interacting in a meaningful way with patients during their office visits. Eye contact, human interaction and empathy are becoming more of a rarity in the exam room. This certainly limits the effective delivery of bad (or good) news to patients. Priority MUST be placed on actual care rather than the computer mandated documentation of said “care”.
  2. Dwindling Long-Term Doctor Patient Relationships: Networks of hospitals, providers and healthcare systems have significantly disrupted traditional referral patterns and long-term care plans. Many patients who have been enrolled in the ACA exchanges are now being told that they cannot see their previous providers. Many physicians (even in states such as California) are opting out of the Obamacare insurances due to extremely low reimbursement rates. Patients may be diagnosed with a significant life changing illness such as Alzheimer’s disease early in their relationship with a brand new healthcare provider. When a new physician provides a patient with bad news—of a life-changing diagnosis that will severely limit their life expectancy as well as quality of life—patients often have difficulty interpreting these results. Healthcare providers that have no relationship with a patient or family are at an extreme disadvantage when delivering negative healthcare news. Long-term doctor patient relationships allow physicians to have a better understanding of the patient, their values and their family dynamics. This “insider knowledge” can help facilitate difficult discussions in the exam room.
  3. Lack of effective therapies to treat the disease: No physician likes to deliver bad news. No doctor wants to admit “defeat” at the hands of disease. It is often the case where some healthcare providers will not disclose some aspects of a diagnosis if there are no effective treatments. I firmly disagree with this practice of withholding relevant information as I believe that every patient has the right to know what they may be facing—many will make significant life choices if they know they have a progressively debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. In the 1950s, many patients were not told about terminal cancer diagnoses due to the lack of effective treatments. However, medicine is no longer paternalistic—we must engage and involve our patients in every decision.
  4. Lack of Physician communication education: As Medical Students we are often overwhelmed with facts to memorize and little attention is given to teaching students how to effectively interact with patients as well as colleagues. Mock interviews with post interview feedback should be a part of pre clinical training for physicians. We must incorporate lectures on grief and the grieving process into the first year of medical school. Making connections with patients must be a priority for physicians in the future—we must equip trainees with the tools they need for success.  Leaders distinguish themselves by the way in which they share bad news.  According to Forbes magazine the critical components of sharing bad news include–accuracy of communication, taking responsibility for the situation, listening, and telling people what you will do next.

What’s next?

As with most things in medicine, change often occurs “around” healthcare providers without direct physician input. Physicians are appropriately focused on providing excellent care and connecting with patients while politicians and economists craft the future of medicine. The issues with lack of communication of negative findings with patients MUST be addressed. Patients have a right to their own data and have a right to know both significant and insignificant findings. In order to avoid situations where patients are not fully informed about their medical condition, we must continue to remain focused on the patient—even if it means that other clerical obligations are left unattended.

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Attending a Funeral: Mourning the Loss of a Friend AND Learning More About the Art of Medicine

(Please note that this blog is based on real people and actual events.  I am grateful to Ed’s family for granting me permission to use his real first name in this blog)

One of the best things about the practice of medicine is the ability to develop long-term relationships with patients and their families.  As physicians, we have the unique privilege of meeting and interacting with thousands of people throughout our careers.  Every once in a while, there are certain people who really make a lasting impact and forever change us as caregivers and as human beings.  Ed was one of those patients.

This week, I said goodbye to one of my long time patients and dearest friends.  Ed, a Korean War veteran, was an amazing man.  He was a dedicated father, a devoted spouse and lived a life that was an example of faith and service to others.  I met Ed through his daughter years ago.  He had moved locally to live near his children and needed a new cardiologist. Fortunately for me, his daughter asked me to take him on as a patient.

Ed had an ischemic cardiomyopathy and suffered from complications of congestive heart failure (CHF).  He was fairly well compensated on medical therapy but continued to have worsening CHF.  During the course of his illness, we eventually  implanted a Biventricular ICD and his symptoms improved significantly.  As with most patients with CHF, over the years, he began to have more frequent hospitalizations for CHF exacerbations.

Through it all, Ed was always cheerful and never complained–in fact it was sometimes difficult to monitor his symptoms due to his demeanor.  Ed always put others before himself.  His wife, suffering from her own chronic illness, was the focus of his final days.  He loved her deeply and wanted to be sure that she was comfortable and well cared for.  Because of my relationship with Ed and his family, I have been made a better cardiologist, and most importantly, a better man.

Men like Ed are few and far between–I was honored to care for him.  My professional role as his cardiologist is what provided me with the fortunate opportunity to be a part of his life and develop a relationship with he and his wonderful family.  As I have said many times before, Medicine is best practiced when relationships and tight bonds are formed between Doctor and patient.  As I left the chapel where the Catholic Mass celebrating Ed’s life was held, I could only wonder if I would ever have the chance to meet another “Ed”.  Healthcare in the US has become more fragmented than ever and care is no longer contiguous in many cases.  Many patients are experiencing access issues and are being told that they can no longer see their long time physicians because of “network” issues or insurance coverage rules.  Doctors are forced to spend more time typing and glaring at  computer screens and less time actually getting to know the “people” behind the diseases they treat.  Connections like I had with Ed are harder to form and personal bonds are less likely to occur in the current environment.  I fear that medicine is becoming more about the “system” and managing regulation than it is about listening and caring for those who suffer from disease.

Ed taught me many things during the time that I cared for him.  He taught me humility, kindness and selflessness–I have never met anyone quite like him. Most importantly, he taught me the value of relationships and TIME.  Even in death, he inspires me to be more to each of my patients–in spite of increasing government demands on both my time and talents.  Ed never stopped caring for others–he never wavered in his commitments to his God, his wife and his children.  It is my hope that I can stand firm and continue to fight for my patients and their right to receive exceptional care.  While I continue to actively speak out against the Affordable Care Act and the regulation of medicine that separates doctor from patient, I must do so in a way that is constructive and advocates for the patient rather than for the doctor.  That is how Ed would see it–of that I am sure.

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Using Twitter and Social Media to Predict Disease: Identifying Risk and Impacting Change

Social media can be an exceptionally useful tool in Medicine.  Many platforms are  ideal for educating colleagues, patients and the community at large about chronic medical conditions as well as spreading the news of new medical innovations and treatments.  Social media platforms such as twitter, YouTube and Facebook (among others) can allow communication between people from different backgrounds and can connect those separated by oceans and thousands of miles all across the world.  While the medical establishment remains skeptical of social media and is often slow to adopt its routine use, it is emerging as an important part of many practices.

Twitter–both in and outside of its use in medicine–certainly has been shown to stir media controversies, influence politics and significantly impact careers (both positively and negatively) due to its ease of use and potential for immediate widespread dissemination.  Beyond the more traditional uses of social media platforms in medicine, a new study has recently been released that shows that one particular platform may actually be useful in predicting disease.  Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study in the January issue of Psychological Science in which they carefully examined the relationship between the “type” of language posted on twitter and an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease.  Stress, anger and other hostile emotions have long been associated with increased levels of cortisol, catecholamines (stress hormones) and increased inflammation.  These biologic byproducts of anger and hostile emotion have been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular events.  Based on this information, researchers set out to identify whether or not the type of language utilized in tweets by a defined population could predict those at greater risk of cardiac events such as heart attack and stroke.  In the study, researchers analysed tweets between 2009 and 1010 using a previously validated emotional dictionary and classified them as to whether they represented anger, stress or other types of emotions.  They found that negative emotion laden tweets–particularly those that expressed anger or hate–were significantly correlated with a higher rate of cardiovascular disease and death.  Conversely, those whose tweets were more positive and optimistic seemed to confer a much lower risk for heart disease and cardiovascular related death.

While this is certainly not a randomized controlled clinical trial–and while we must interpret these results in the context of the study design–it does illustrate an new utility for social media.  As we continue to reach out and engage with patients on social media, our interactions may actually provide more than just communication of ideas–these interactions may produce important clinical data that may provide clues to assist us in the treatment of our patients in the future.  This particular study allowed researchers to predict risk for entire communities based on an analysis of random tweets from those residing in that geographical area.  For primary care physicians, using clues provided from social media interaction may provide insight into both an entire community’s health risk as well as an individual patient’s demeanor and allow for more aggressive screening and treatment for a wide variety of diseases from depression to cardiovascular disease.

Social media use will continue to grow among medical professionals.  I believe that when healthcare providers use all available tools and data in the care of their patients, outcomes will improve.  We must continue to explore the use of social media platforms such as twitter in clinical care and we must continue to examine ways in which the social media behavior of patient populations can predict disease.  I commend the researchers from the University of Pennsylvania for their creativity and vision–we need more creative minds who are willing to use pioneering strategies to improve care for our patients.  We can no longer shy away from social media in medicine–we must embrace it and begin to learn how to use it as a tool to effect change.

 

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Obama’s Latest Bait and Switch for Docs: Medicaid Payments to be Cut by 40%

As we enter year two of the Affordable Care Act, we have seen many issues arise during implementation.  Through both executive order and executive memorandum, President Obama has unilaterally changed the law more than 100 times in order to advance his own political agenda.  When it became important to publicize enrollment and increased coverage of the uninsured, the President and the ACA provided for an increased payment scale for patients with Medicaid.  With the rapid increase of Medicaid insured patients due to the implementation of the ACA, the administration utilized the increased payments as an incentive to attract more physicians to participate in Medicaid programs.  According to the New York Times, the ACA has resulted in the largest increase in Medicaid covered patients in history–now nearly 20% of all Americans are covered under this plan.  Attracting physicians to cover Medicare patients has been critical in order to meet the demand for access to care and  to adequately cover the newly insured.  Now, unless changes are made this week, Medicaid reimbursements will be cut once again leaving many physicians to wonder if they can continue to treat the increasing numbers of Americans covered thru these programs.

Traditionally, Medicaid has reimbursed physicians at rates significantly lower than Medicare–making practices with large numbers of Medicaid patients financially non viable.  As the ACA was rolled out, a provision provided for significantly better Medicaid payment rates to physicians in order to help provide larger networks of care for the newly insured.  Now, there looms an automatic payment rate cut of nearly 43% for Medicaid payments to primary care physicians–many of these are the same physicians who agreed to expand Medicaid within their practices in order to meet demand.  According to Forbes, traditional Medicaid reimbursement averages just 61% of Medicare reimbursement rates (which is often significantly lower than private insurance rates).  In addition, many Medicaid patients require a disproportionate amount of time and resources from the office–doctors are caught between a “rock and a hard place”–between a moral obligation to treat these patients and a desire to avoid financial ruin.  These patients tend to be sicker, have multiple medical problems and have suffered from a long time lack of preventive care.

Finances are not the only piece of the Medicaid puzzle. Government regulation and paperwork and processing often delays payments to physicians and impacts their ability to run a financially sound business.   Interestingly, a study from 2013 published in Health Affairs suggested that while physicians welcomed an increase in reimbursement rates as incentive to treat Medicaid patients that quicker payment times, reduced paperwork and simplified administrative processes would also need to be a part of any type of reform.  (of course, none of these items were included in the incentive package).

Many primary care physicians stepped up to answer the call for increasing coverage of Medicare patients when the ACA was initially rolled out.  Now, these same physicians are contemplating the need to drop these patients from their clinics with the pending change in reimbursement.  As mentioned above, in addition to lower reimbursement rates, the Medicaid program requires an enormous amount of administrative work in order to file claims and these claims are often paid very late–those running a small practice are forced with more work for less pay and often have to make difficult budgetary decisions in order to  payroll for their staff each week.   While the administration touts the swelling numbers of Medicaid covered patients–nearly 68 million currently–I suspect access to quality care will soon become an issue.  Just as with every other manipulation of the ACA over the last two years, legacy and political agendas have taken precedent over what really should matter–providing quality medical care AND prompt, easy access to care for the formerly uninsured.  In an effort to tout swelling numbers of “covered” Americans, the Obama administration has failed to anticipate the impact of short term financial incentives for primary care physicians to accept increasing numbers of Medicare patients.  Even in states such as California, officials are bracing for a large number of physicians who have announced that they will likely drop out of Medicaid plans if the planned cuts are implemented as scheduled.

It is time for the Obama administration to stop playing political games with our healthcare.  If the mission of the ACA is to provide affordable quality healthcare for all Americans, then we need to ensure that there are quality, dedicated physicians available to provide that care.  The Medicaid “bait and switch” is just one example of our President’s shortsightedness and lack of connection to those dedicated physicians who work tirelessly to ensure that ALL patients have access to care (regardless of insurance type).  It is my hope that the new Congress will engage with the physician community and find real solutions to the US healthcare crisis–and no longer allow the President to place his perceived legacy over the healthcare of those Americans who are in need.

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Image adapted from The Peanuts comic strip by Charles Shultz

An Apple A Day—Changing Medicine Through Technology and Engagement

The practice of medicine and healthcare in general has become an electronic and increasingly mobile interaction. Patients are better informed, more engaged, more connected and have a much greater virtual presence. In fact, according to Pew Research data, the fastest growing demographic on Twitter are those who are in the 45-65 age bracket.   Nearly 50% of all seniors engage online on a daily basis through at least one social media platform and many of these interactions and online engagements occur via mobile devices. Almost 75% of all adults go online within hours of attending a visit with their physician in order to gather more information about their particular medical problem. For healthcare providers—and for patients—the internet and mobile technology presents us all with wonderful opportunities to interact, engage, support and ultimately improve outcomes.

New connected devices and medical applications for mobile devices are on growing exponentially.   The world responded favorably to the latest release of the iPhone 6 and the iOS8 operating system recently released by Apple. The new device has many interesting features but one in particular caught my eye early on. Apple has created a standard package for all iOS 8 devices that is called the Health Kit. This particular application allows a user to track calories, steps taken (similar to a pedometer), flights of stairs climbed and other customizable health related data points. These data can be organized into graphs and charts that allow users to track progress and adjust activity levels to achieve particular goals. More impressively, the device will allow other health related applications to organize data in the Health Kit as well. One of the biggest problems with medial applications in the past is that there has never been an easy place to organize, store, collect and view all of the data together. Moreover, this data is not easily shared with healthcare providers. The Health Kit and Apple may revolutionize this entire process of data collection, retrieval and sharing—Apple has partnered with a major electronic medical record service known as EPIC. Work is underway to allow the Health Kit data and applications to easily interact with the EPIC medical record. This would allow for easy downloads of health data during a face-to-face encounter with healthcare providers. Currently, most major hospitals and healthcare systems are moving to the EPIC platform. The data collected and downloaded at one location would subsequently be available to all providers in the system—portability of data allows for better care and less duplication of effort.

Much has been written about patient engagement and improved outcomes in the medical literature. I can think of no better way to improve engagement than through the use of real time health applications –these allow patients to receive real time feedback—both good and bad—and respond quickly in order to improve their overall health status. I think that this type of technology will only continue to grow. Apple plans to release the Apple Watch in early 2015. I expect that this will also be integrated with Health Kit and allow for the measurement of respiratory rate, heart rate, body temperature and other biologic measurements. As these tools continue to develop and applications grow, healthcare providers as well as patients must be receptive to their use. These technologies have the potential to allow clinicians to better assess patients between office visits and provide more directed and timely changes in therapy. Ultimately I believe these technologies will transform healthcare. As we continue to struggle with healthcare cost containment in the era of healthcare reform, the ability to shift care and routine interaction to mobile platforms may very well prove to be a critical piece of the puzzle.

This is an exciting time in medicine as well as in healthcare technology. Moving forward, I look to a day where biologic sensors collect data, relay data to mobile devices and then transmit information seamlessly to healthcare systems. The healthcare providers are alerted to any abnormalities and electronic responses are generated—those patients requiring timely in person visits can be identified and scheduled, while those that can be handled virtually can be managed quickly and effectively as well. Ultimately, our goal is to better manage disease and improve outcomes. I think that technologies such as the Health Kit and the Apple Watch are giant leaps forward and are just the beginning of a new age of virtual healthcare.

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