The Human Side of Digital Health

By David Gregg, M.D., chief medical officer, StayWell.

Dave Gregg, MD
David Gregg

Technology can be harmful to our health, especially our emotional health. Those are the latest findings from Cigna’s recent study highlighting the epidemic of social isolation. The report details the impact technology has on younger adults, communities, and even workplaces. While health care continues to focus on the latest tech advances, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, providers are seeing a steady increase in social isolation linked to technology.

With an ever-expanding inventory of digital health tools at our fingertips, we need to balance the benefits that these advances offer, with a human-centered, personal touch to improve the health and well-being of individuals.

Digital health has made significant strides in improving the health of patients, expanding a network of apps, digital platforms, wearables, and plug-ins – creating greater connectivity among patients, providers, payers, and employers, while capturing meaningful health data.

As technology advances we’re seeing innovative ways to use this data to reveal trends, detect health issues much earlier, trigger alerts, and personalize health care. But the digital health universe still cannot capture a full picture of a patient’s entire health. For that we still need a human approach.

Social media is a double-edged sword, bringing us all together as never before, but causing greater isolation and diminishing the richness of person-to-person interaction. Digital health technology poses a similar dilemma — we can link patients to care systems as never before and generate new avenues to share timely data, but can we maintain the valuable patient-care team relationship and avoid overwhelming care teams with too many data sources and administrative tasks?

More data is good, but is it the right data and are we applying it to deliver optimal care and improve health? Advanced technology is good, but is it producing efficiency and enabling care teams to do what they do best – take care of patients?

Digital health is a balancing act – we want to leverage high-tech while we preserve high-touch. For example, to maintain focus on the patient, health coaches are playing a more prominent role in the delivery of care. Health systems and employers are turning to health coaches to serve as a high-touch health champion to drive engagement and support treatment adherence. Health coaches serve as the human bridge between patients, care teams, and health plans. Coaches help make sense out of the wealth of digital health data.

Digital health can extend the person-to-person experience – video, chatbots, virtual reality and other solutions can replace a face-to-face visit while retaining many valuable personal touches. It’s great to generate more relevant data about an individual patient, but there still needs to be someone or some means to help that patient make sense of the data, take action based on the data, or change health behaviors identified by the data.

When we ask patients to interact with technology, track their health, or submit data, it should make them feel more supported, more connected, more secure and more satisfied with their health care experience.

This challenge impacts care teams and health systems as well. On the positive side, technology can collect more patient data, can embed this data in the electronic medical record, and can create greater connection between patient and care team enabling the “push” of information to patients.

But, on the negative side, there’s risk if we fail to ensure that information is valid, organized in ways that allow care teams to use it effectively, seamlessly integrated in clinical workflows, and readily available or even pushed to care teams based on patient profiles.

Digital health has brought us a long way, delivering new insights and greater understanding of human health, how patients interact with the care system, how health behaviors are improved, and how care can be more efficient and effective. With these advances comes the obligation to strike the best balance of high-tech and high-touch. It we keep our focus on those who benefit most – consumers, patients, care teams, the health system – there is greater chance that we will leverage technology to improve population health, without fueling care team burnout and social isolation for patients.

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