By Dr. Jeremy Corbett, divisional chief health officer, Envolve Health.
Facing a severe shortage of primary care physicians — as many as 55,200 by 2032, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges — means we must humanize technology-driven approaches in healthcare. Why? To improve efficiencies and ensure patients are getting the care they need, where and when they need it.
In an ideal world, physicians would play a prominent role in designing digital patient experiences, but according to a recent survey by Kyruus, they often feel excluded. Thus, we end up with a model where technology “happens” to physicians, rather than physicians cocreating the places where technology can align with them to promote better care.
The implications for our physician shortage are significant: Studies show the number of physicians in a community correlates positively with health and, inversely, with mortality rates and health costs. Yet despite the important role primary care physicians play, medical school graduates are often choosing other paths. In 2019, the National Resident Matching Program offered a record number of primary care positions, but the number of those positions filled was the lowest ever recorded.
Salary plays into this trend, as does work-life balance and the lack of automation. Physicians today are working harder than ever, and technology is increasing their burden, not lightening it. They’re seeing more patients, clicking more boxes, filling out more forms, and interacting with an increasing number of electronic systems — not to get ahead but to simply stay afloat.
Ready or Not, Here Comes Technology
Increasing the number of primary care physicians may seem like the solution, but according to an AAMC report, the answer actually lies in making better use of technology.Through communication modalities and access to real-time data, physicians could spend more time with patients who need it while simultaneously providing less hands-on guidance (via virtual touchpoints) to those who don’t.
Additionally, an overall mindset shift involving healthcare is needed. First, physicians must shake their insecurities involving technology. Yes, it’s likely patients will one day receive prescriptions from a kiosk or a drone and adapt, ultimately, to AI-facilitated care. But will they collectively determine that they have no need for the physician-patient relationship? Not likely. Healthcare is a personal, intimate space, forever requiring a human touch. Accordingly, patients will always seek a curated experience led by a physician.
Patients, too, must shift their expectations and mindsets, particularly for garden-variety ailments and concerns. Just as humans now expect less personal interactions at the bank or supermarket, they must expect the same with healthcare. Consider the evolution of a filling station: There was a time when we would pull our car in to get our windows wiped, tank filled, and tire pressure checked — all for the price of gas. That’s no longer the case, and we’ve adapted.
The jury’s still out on the idea of texting our doctor or responding to a video message. However, as the world changes and our needs evolve, the way services are delivered across all industries is changing and must be adapted to best fit the needs of the end user.
A Vision for the Future of Healthcare
While possibilities for technology and healthcare are vast, making clinically relevant data available in real time is particularly valuable. Still, it requires access to the right biometric data as well as an elegant provider-facing interface that makes efficient, correct intervention second nature.
Machine learning will play an increasingly large role here. Consider diagnostics. A radiologist may read 100 chest X-rays a day, but a machine can process millions of images instantaneously, “learning” in real time how to distinguish a nodule from something less sinister. Could this potentially free up that same radiologist to manage more subtle (or acute) patient needs?
In other words, organizations would benefit from utilizing technology to maximize their most expensive and valuable commodity: their physicians. With technology, we can provide physicians with the exact data points (delivered at the right time) that will lead to significant long-term improvements to patient care.
One technology we’re working on seeks to transform the way diabetes patients are cared for, particularly through the use of “coaches.” In the past, diabetes coaches were reactionary, focusing solely on the next call and the next appointment. But realistically, the “event” they were trained to avoid may have occurred weeks before. Through this new approach, coaches can receive cloud-based biometric data seconds after an event occurs, empowering them to intervene and drive change at the exact moment their care is needed.
As the demand for physicians rises, technology can help close the gap. When we allow physicians to play a role in designing technology initiatives, it will result in better care that retains its essential human character.