Sherlock Holmes famously captured the popular imagination with his uncanny ability to make wild, but accurate, leaps of logic to solve mysteries. By observing Dr. Watson’s suit jacket sleeve, upon their first encounter, he was able to deduce that Watson was in fact a surgeon, in the British Army, and had recently returned from Afghanistan, where he had sustained an injury.
When he slowed down to explain his reasoning, it was easy to follow; what made his deductions impressive was how quickly he would skip from observation to conclusion. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but it seems to me that chatbots are poised to take over much of modern healthcare.
As more data is moved to portals through EHRs and digital documentation, there is increased patient interest in and demand for other digital and remote encounters and health resources. This, along with improving technology and competitive solutions, is helping increase adoption of telehealth. So, patient portals lead to increased telehealth adoption.
Finally, although part of the premise and value of telehealth is enabling face-to-face encounters between caregivers and patients without respect to geography, hospital waiting rooms, or other physical barriers, it changes certain expectations. Like all mobile and web-based services, telehealth feeds a consumer mindset that expects everything on-demand, all but instantaneously, and highly customized at that.
While portable patient records facilitated by EHRs and interoperability can help this, customization and on-demand healthcare doesn’t just put pressure on records and data. Patients want fast and personalized answers. As customer service centers, tech support, banks and virtually every other consumer-facing industry has learned, a lot of the on-demand load can be pushed onto increasingly sophisticated chatbots.
So, telehealth leads to growing expectations for on-demand clinical encounters and chat, which is provided by chatbots.
The Case for Chatbots
Retail has previewed much for healthcare: See how customer service upgrades have turned everyone into “The Most Important Person Here” wherever they go, in person or online. Consumers demand personalization, expedition, authenticity and they want it all exactly when and where they want it. And now, see how AI is not yet taking over the world, but is making FAQs and other routine customer service interactions painless for those answering, and interactive enough for those asking.
Retail is even making inroads to healthcare, as consumer-facing devices promise to measure and track all manner of health metrics. Statistics-loving sports fans witness the increasing digitization and quantification of athletes, games, injuries and training, and they want a similar level of insight and precision for their own care. Mobile technology is redefining and disrupting even the oldest and most stable of markets and industries, bit by literal bit.
So how long until the dry, repetitive questions doctors routinely must answer in check-ups and physicals are ethically and effectively offloaded onto chatbots programmed to triage and educate patients without wasting valuable human resources? How long until using telehealth to keep nonemergency patients out of the emergency room merges with using chat and AI — the basic recipe for chatbots — to keep healthy but curious or concerned patients from wasting time and money going through full encounters simply to get their general questions answered?
It doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to realize the benefits of AI at scale. Google has all but taken over the modern world by connecting searchers with answers to their questions; Wikipedia has all but bankrupted the encyclopedia industry with free, accessible, general knowledge. In a world where health literacy is so lacking in the majority of the population, some interactive resources could go a long way to chipping away at ER overuse and healthcare overconsumption, just by giving people an alternative to seeing the doctor.
Automation of Care, Automation of Crime
As quickly as potential benefits can scale, very real risks and both moral and financial hazards scale even quicker.
The growing popularity and implementation of chatbots has given hackers and cybercriminals a new way to scam, defraud, and generally abuse unwitting consumers. Sometimes that means hackers take over a company’s chat system with their own bot and solicit data. Sometimes fraudsters attract visitors with a spoof website, then use a bot to similarly extract volunteered data at scale from misled visitors. However it is done, it scales almost as well as a more conventional data breach, and can be harder to detect or track.
In time, this particular attack did manage to spread internationally from Europe over to America, but that only provided further evidence that ransomware, and cyber attacks more broadly, are a threat of seemingly unlimited potential. The failings of American healthcare to get its data safely organized look far less damning when the scale of cyber risk is made explicitly global, and even the NSA is caught off-guard by their own tools being turned into weapons in enemy hands.
Not Alone, but Not Ahead
Of course, that American hospitals weren’t the primary targets for once doesn’t remotely get them off the hook; nor does the jarring impact of this particular incident reflect a growing resilience among health data security in the U.S. American health data may not be alone in its vulnerability or attractiveness to thieves, but neither are our health systems leading the pack in protecting against ransomware, or any other form of cyber attack. Sadly, this wakeup call seems more likely to be heard outside of healthcare than within it; the scale makes it almost universally noteworthy, but otherwise it resembles a new status quo for data leaks in modern health systems.
Credit card data is relatively to protect; thieves are easily and quickly locked out of accounts, if not caught, thanks to everything from increased scrutiny by lenders and processing companies as well as consumer-facing transparency and 24/7 account monitoring via mobile credit card alerts and apps. Health data, by contrast, remains largely vulnerable. Clinics are not particularly good at recognizing fraud when thieves have a person’s medical data; hospitals have proven themselves no better at keeping that data secure in the first place. So compared to traditional identity theft leveraging plastic, digital health data presents a softer and more lucrative target end to end.
T-Mobile recently became the first cell phone carrier to offer free inflight Wi-Fi (in support of Wi-Fi texting, as cellular signals are still not yet allowed) to all its customers. Admittedly, this was technically on the strength of partnering with a third-party platform, Go-Go, but the carrier gets the glory of being first among its big four peers to take even this step.
In-flight Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi calling, and similar services aren’t necessarily new technology, but having support for limited internet browsing and texting, all delivered through one of the top carriers in the nation, makes for a reasonably good elevator pitch—especially if you happen to be a T-Mobile customer. But the importance of the development isn’t just the novelty of the technology or the value of the service on offer; it is planting a shining pink flag in the market and staking that claim of being “first.”
Early Adoption, Arrested Development
Being first hasn’t lost its luster yet, even in a time when consumer expectations are sometimes a generation or two ahead of current technology. Hospitals and their leadership recognize this, and so, despite uncertainty on everything from insurance market regulations to the future of EHR integration, many are taking strides to do as T-Mobile has done — and find a way to get there first on a variety of issues important to consumers. And like T-Mobile, being first doesn’t have to mean getting into the weeds of proprietary innovation and product development—although plenty of larger chains and clinics do take that route; for many hospitals, being first can be accomplished through strategic partnerships with tech-centric companies.
If there is one lesson out of Silicon Valley that has entered the American zeitgeist, it is that being the first out with something can give a company, product or even team of creatives a lot of leeway in terms of going on to iterate, improve, and generally tinker. But on the healthcare front, we see how the drive to be first—or even keep pace with the rest of the industry—can create a “hurry up and wait” situation where meaningful progress sometimes lags fanfare or technology.
That is why the top tech trends in healthcare don’t change much year to year; end users, hospital administrators, and tech developers are all still trying to figure out what works, what works best, and how to integrate new tools into the clinical workflow, the patient experience, and the regulatory environment governing it all.
That is the story of EHRs is a nutshell: a good idea, a rush to adoption (both willing and coerced), and then a lengthy period of reiteration as all stakeholders struggle to recreate or wholistically reconsider the context in which this new system can, and should, operate. But the rush to adopt first and configure later isn’t limited to high-technology in the healthcare sector; it pretty well describes the legal environment surrounding health insurance.
Industry Leadership: Being First or Being Best?
From how it affects patients to what it is still trying to influence in the provider space, the conversation about care and coverage is still shepherded primarily by fear, secondarily by outrage, and in most other respects by confusion. So it looks like we’ll be shopping the exchanges for a while longer, even under President Trump’s watch.
After gazing into the abyss that was Trumpcare, the still-evolving status quo that is Obamacare is more popular than ever. Here again, the power of being first seems to provide some residual sticking power to a law frequently and publicly dragged through the mud by people and organizations with at least as much visibility and influence as one like T-Mobile.
We put a lot of faith in health technology: to make us better, to save our systems, to revolutionize healthcare. We may be looking at it from the wrong side entirely.
The social determinants of health matter more than our ability to deploy doctors or provide insurance; physical and mental, health is always more social than clinical.
But most of our health tech that is supposed to be revolutionary is aimed at clinical factors, rather than the social determinants of health. Yes, telehealth can increase reach, but it is still just a matter of touchpoints, not a fundamental change to the lifestyles and cultures that determine health.
Same with all our EHR systems creating more ways to record information, more ways to quantify patients, to put more emphasis on engagement and quality-based reimbursement. Even genomics and personalized medicine are taking a backseat to soliciting reviews and trying to turn the patient experience into a number. It all puts greater focus on the clinical encounters, on how patients “feel” broadly about each minute aspect of their time in the medical facility.
A Digital Disease
As politicians trade blows on minimum wages and the ACA, the likelihood grows that insurance benefits and livable incomes (and lifestyles) will get pushed further out of reach for more people.
Modern work is tech-centric, which means lots of sitting, and manages to facilitate increased snacking without being particularly physical, a double-whammy that prevents employment or higher incomes from leading to healthier choices. For the less-skilled, normally accessible jobs are in the sights of automation and disruption. While tech is taking over medicine and opening up new possibilities, it is also transforming the labor market and closing countless doors to workers.
By extension, technology is changing the social framework that determines public health. Income inequality is growing, wage growth is stagnant, and no amount of awareness can change these front-of-mind concerns for people who may well want to eat better and exercise more, or even commit to seeing the doctor more often and following his or her advice to the letter.
Poor people can’t necessarily eat better as a simple matter of choice or doctor’s orders. Planning meals and purchasing healthful foods is a tax on limited resources–time as well as money. Working three jobs to pay the bills, many lower income individuals also don’t necessarily have time to exercise. And more likely than not, those working even high-paying jobs are sitting all day, sapping their bodies of energy and resilience, undoing the good of their intentions and smart devices alike through attrition.
Schumpeter considered it the “essential fact about capitalism,” that things have to fall apart so better things can take their place. The familiar is violently displaced by the unfamiliar, but superior, alternative.
Buggy whip makers are sent out of business as car makers take over the transportation space. Typists go extinct as word processing becomes cheap and ubiquitous. Blockbuster goes bankrupt, so Netflix and all its streaming peers can take over the space. The notion that the New can mean bad news for the Old is nothing unique to our modern era, though perhaps the speed and distribution of change thanks to globalization and digital technology means we see this more and more.
Well, 2017 may well be the beginning of the end for primary care as we once knew it.
The “Who’s on First” of Healthcare
As with any other example of creative destruction, the signs in primary care have been there for anyone to read, though perhaps the conclusion they point to hasn’t been quite as clear as the contributing forces.
Nursing, as a profession, has been on a long arc over the last century or so, transforming patient care as well as clinical organization and even leadership. Nurses have evolved from subordinates to doctors to, in some cases, replacements–notably, in primary care clinics, especially critical access hospitals or in areas where patients might not otherwise get to see a doctor outside of an emergency room.
Primary care provider shortages aren’t strictly limited to rural or remote areas. Thanks to demographic trends, more people are living longer and managing more chronic conditions. Keeping this swell of aging patients from charging into Emergency Departments en masse was part of the logic behind elements of the Affordable Care Act shifting resources to clinics run by NPs as opposed to MDs. While nurses face a shortage of their own, they have still been tagged as a key element of preserving and expanding access to primary care. In 2007, the shift in nursing toward a more central leadership role was codified by the Association of Colleges of Nursing with its designation of the Clinical Nurse Leader as a new official role for nursing professionals.
Simply put, consistent access to primary care supports prevention strategies, which are altogether cheaper and more effective than sending everyone through an ED or into a long-term care clinic. While many–notably, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Medical Association–muckrake over this disruption of scope of practice, the change is one of necessity. Nurses today provide critical care, and lead diverse clinical and professional teams to coordinate whole-person health.
With or without the Affordable Care Act, the shortage in primary care will persist. Expanded access through insurance only exacerbated the underlying issue. As Millennials enter middle ages and Boomers carry on retiring and living longer than ever, primary care will be stretched. Whatever comes out of the Trump administration or the ongoing scope of practice debates, primary care requires providers, and nurses are showing up to work.
Mobile technology is impacting every element of American healthcare–from insurance and billing to documentation and caregiving, the impacts are being felt. The truly transformative element of the mobile revolution is not the technology itself, or the way it changes the look and feel of the tasks it affects. Despite complaints of the depersonalizing effect of technology, the ultimate value of mobile in the sector will be how it enhances and encourages communication.
Providers are Going Mobile
Already, flexibility and functionality have already drawn providers to mobile devices and solutions. Voice-to-text technology and similar automated solutions are in the offing to relieve the documentation burden that has dampered some amount of enthusiasm toward digitization. Bolstered by these advancements, caregivers will go from subjects of their EHRs to masters of patient encounters.
One of the huge benefits of mobility–as opposed to simply being networked on desktop computers or having a digital health records solution–is the capacity for greater native customization and app development. Native apps are like the currency of the mobile, smart device world providers are entering. Developers can deliver personal, branded interfaces that allow doctors to choose precisely how they want their dashboards to look, giving their EHRs a custom touch that has been sorely lacking throughout their implementation.
App-centric development will further reduce the friction of adoption and utilization, giving doctors a sense of empowerment and investment, rather than the bland inertia that has carried digitization thus far.
The personalization of the technology through app development will help boost adoption, and return the focus to what the technology enables, rather than how it looks or what it has replaced. Mobile technology’s strength will be in reconnecting doctors and patients, and creating bridges of data and communication across the continuum of care.
In virtually every context that question might be asked, we struggle to give an honest, accurate answer.
It Works If You Believe It Works
Is the medication working? Difficult to say–it may be the placebo effect, it may be counteracted by other medications, or we may be monitoring the wrong indicators to recognize any effect. Is “working” the same as “having an effect,” or must it be the desired effect?
Alternative medicine confounds the balance of expectations and outcomes even further. Right at the intersection of evidenced-based medicine and naturopathy, for instance, we have hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT. These devices are as much in vogue among emergency departments (to treat embolisms, diabetic foot ulcers, and burns) as holistic dream salesmen (to prevent aging and cure autism, if you believe the hype). When the metric being tracked is as fluid as the visible effects of aging, answering whether the treatment is working is about as subjective as you can get.
As though the science of pharmaceuticals and clinical medicine weren’t confounding enough, you can hardly go anywhere in healthcare today without politics getting added to the mix. In the wake of Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, you have observers and stakeholders asking of the Affordable Care Act (ACA): is it working?
There’s Something Happening Here
It is definitely doing something. It is measurably active in our tax policy, for instance: 2016 returns are heavily influenced by the incremental growth of the ACA’s financial provisions. Of course, the point of this tax policy (depending on who you ask) is to influence behavior. As to this point, there are some signs that, again, something is happening: among young people, ER visits in general are down, while emergency stays due to mental health illness are up. We changed how healthcare is insured, and that changed, in turn, how we access our care. But is it working?
When we talk about technology disrupting healthcare, we aren’t just referring to changes in the accuracy of health records or the convenience of mobile care; the real disruption comes in the form of fundamental challenges to traditional scopes of practice.
What Should We Do?
Scope of practice, broadly, is determined by a combination of liability and capability. Lead physicians carry greater liability than the bedside nurses assisting in patient care, because the care plan is directed by the lead physician. Likewise, the extra years of education and practice are assumed to increase the capacity of physicians to lead their care teams, make decisions about how the team will go about its work, and parse all of the information provided by the patient, nurses and other specialists involved with each case.
In every other industry, productivity increases come from technology enhancing the ability of individuals and teams to perform work. Email saves time and money by improving communication; industrial robotics standardize manufacturing and raise the scale and quality of output. Every device, app and system allows individuals to scale their contribution, to do more and add more value. Word processing and voice-to-text enable executives to do work that might otherwise have been performed by a secretary or typist. Travel websites allow consumers to find cheap tickets and travel packages that would previously have required a travel agent to acquire.
In healthcare, technology is changing the capacity of the individual caregiver, expanding what can be done, and often how well it can be done. These improvements, along with a growing need for healthcare professionals and services, are challenging traditional notions of scope of practice–for good and bad.
Some of the changes to scope of practice are positive, necessary, and constructive. For example, technological literacy is necessary at every point in the care continuum, because interoperable EHRs and the vulnerability of digital information means that everyone must contribute to cyber security. In a sense, caregivers at every level must expand their scope of practice to incorporate an awareness of privacy, security,and data management considerations.
By extension, all caregivers are participating as never before in the advancement of clinical research, population health monitoring, and patient empowerment simply by working more closely with digital data and computers. As EHR technology iterates its way toward fulfilling its potential, caregivers and administrators are being forced to have difficult conversations about priorities, values, goals and the nature of the relationship between patient, provider, system, and technology. It is overdue, and foundational to the future of healthcare.
Is There A Nurse in the House?
The trend in healthcare toward prevention and balancing patient-centered care with awareness of population health issues puts primary care in a place of greater importance than ever. This, in turn, is driving a shift in the education of nurses to promote more training, higher levels of certification, and greater specialization to justify relying on nurses to fulfill more primary care roles. They are becoming better generalists and specialists, capable of bolstering teams as well as leading them.
It isn’t that doctors aren’t skilled, intelligent or capable enough—it is that the demands being placed on them are too great.
Time and documentation demands mean that something has to give. As many physicians have pointed out over the years of the HITECH Act’s implementation, the thing that normally “gives” is facetime with patients: actual, hands-on delivery of care and attention. Instead, they are driven to input data for documentation, follow prompts on EHR interfaces, ensure their record-keeping practices will facilitate correct coding for billing, as well as tip-toeing around HIPAA and the explosion of security and privacy vulnerabilities opened up by the shift to digital.
The reality of modern medicine—and especially the rate at which it evolves, grows, and becomes outdated—means that doctors need what most every other industry has already integrated: more brains. Not simply in the form of EHRs for record-sharing, or voice-to-text applications as a substitute for transcriptionists, but as memory-supplements, or second brains.
As a species, humans are also evolving away from memory as a critical element of intelligence, because we now have devices—“smart” devices—always on, always on us, and always connected to the ultimate resources of facts and data.
Our smart devices—phones, tablets, etc.—are gateways to the whole of human knowledge: indexes of information, directories of images, libraries question and answer exchanges. In effect, we are increasingly able and willing to offload “thinking” onto these devices.
Supplement or Supplant?
Depending on the context and application, this trend is both helpful and potentially harmful. For those prone to critical thinking and equipped with analytical skills, offloading some elements of memory to these devices is a question of efficiency. Even better, the more they practice using it, the more effective they become at integrating devices into their cognitive tasks. In others (those less prone to think critically), it is a shortcut that reduces cognitive function altogether: rather than a cognitive extension, the devices act as substitutes for thinking. Similarly, increasing over-reliance on the internet and search engines further diminishes already deficient analytical skills.
The standard roadmap for a medical education entails a lot of memorization—of anatomy, of diseases, of incredible volumes of data to facilitate better clinical performance. It isn’t memorization simply for the sake of recitation, though; it is the foundation for critical thinking in a clinical context. As such, medical professionals ought to be leading candidates for integrating smart devices not as crutches, but as amplifiers of cognition.
So far, that has been far from the dominant trend.
Enter the Machine
Integrating computers as tools is one thing, and even that has proven an uphill battle for physicians: the time and learning curve involved in integrating EHRs alone has proven to be a recurring complaint across the stages of Meaningful Use and implementation.
Patient engagement—another of the myriad buzzwords proliferating the healthcare industry lately—is another challenge. Some patients are bigger critics of the new, digitally-driven workflows than the most Luddite physicians. On the other hand, some patients are at the bleeding edge of digital integration, and find both care providers and the technology itself moving too slowly.