By Dr. Salvatore Viscomi, chief medical officer, GoodCell, and an attending physician at Baystate Health.
As we round the corner on the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 sending the country and most parts of the world into lockdown, the pandemic is still ever-present and will have longstanding implications on our health and lifestyle for years to come. Despite the ongoing mass vaccination effort nationwide, the multitude of new variants pose more unprecedented questions about the virus and our overall health and wellbeing.
It’s unsurprising that stressors brought on by the pandemic, from the virus itself to isolation and job uncertainty, have caused many to reassess and take greater agency over their health through the use of direct-to-consumer testing solutions and wearables.
As we continue to see vaccines roll out and sleeves roll up, we’re now looking toward resuming many of our pre-pandemic health practices. Even still, we can expect they will look different in a new era of patient-controlled care brought on by a wave of data-driven individuals who are now more attuned to their health than they were before. Fortunately, this is poised to benefit the physician-patient relationship, including making doctor’s visits more productive, faster and accurate.
Personal health tech is on the rise, and doctors are getting on board
Over the past several months, wearables and direct-to-consumer (DTC) tools have surged in popularity, given the rise of telehealth and remote care as a means to continue healthcare checks amid the global health crisis. Millions of Americans were still forced to delay annual health visits, which resulted in a 56% increase in negative health burdens among clinicians according to a survey conducted by Primary Care Collaborative last year.
This trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Gartner expects end-user spending on wearable devices will reach $81.5 billion by the end of 2021, marking a substantial 18.1% increase since 2020. As a result, we’ve ushered in a new age of health consciousness and control.
What began as testing for genetic predispositions at the dawn of direct-to-consumer testing, has since grown into so much more as patients now have the ability to identify real-time biomarkers indicative of major health conditions, ascertain food sensitivities and much more. Moreover, targeted health screenings paired with digital platforms allow patients to identify, track and monitor their health over time to see how lifestyle choices impact their wellbeing. These offerings, in conjunction with the wealth of data streams available through wearables, is promoting a greater understanding of one’s unique health influencers, including the role of sleep, diet, stress and exercise.
As these data become more comprehensive and accurate, physicians are starting to take notice of these tools as valuable aids in clinical care. A new report found that primary care physicians (PCPs) are becoming significantly more comfortable with DTC Genetic testing information, with 80% of PCPs open to or likely to recommend DTC genetic testing for health if asked about it by their patients.
We’re on the cusp of a new health paradigm marked by the “informed patient,” in which patients are much more knowledgeable about their health before walking through a physician’s door or initiating a telehealth visit. As we undergo this shift toward more patient-centric care, an increasing use of DTC testing and wearables will inevitably have broader implications on the overall health experience.
Reimagining the patient-physician relationship: More Productive Visits
The advent of DTC solutions and digital health tools will help patients be more knowledgeable and informed prior to heading into annual appointments. For instance, direct-to-consumer testing solutions can provide a comprehensive view of their health and blood work that would otherwise be the domain of the health practitioner and blood labs. Armed with these insights – and with data from wearable devices and health apps that can track diet, sleep and exercise – patients and physicians can become partners in the future of a patient’s health. Being a patient is no longer a passive activity. Today’s consumers are now armed with a wealth of data and insights that can be instrumental to their care plan. Emerging technologies also help empower more constructive conversations with their physicians.
Secondly, access to an abundance of robust testing data has the potential to enable doctors to expedite diagnoses. We’re seeing these tools prove useful in many therapeutic areas, including COVID-19 where devices like AI-powered armbands are helping to identify infected individuals more quickly. The combination of traditional testing paired with emerging intelligent screening devices and hyper-targeted health screenings of the blood to determine real-time health status is offering new pathways to understanding and preempting disease.
By bringing many of these insights directly to their physicians, patients and doctors can uncover answers more quickly together. By granting physicians access to many of these devices and health technology platforms, patients can also benefit from more immediate answers to their health questions.
Moreover, the conversation doesn’t stop after the patient leaves the office or video conference. Shared portals are allowing patients to collaborate seamlessly and at their convenience. Linking personal health dashboards and wearable data streams to these interfaces can further improve this experience and provide an even more granular view of their health in response to a proposed treatment plan.
More Accurate and Personalized Care
Lastly, these tools enable more accurate and efficient care. Direct-to-consumer testing and wearables have not only become more popular, but they’ve also become more robust and accurate in their data capture. As doctors become more trusting of these solutions, they can capitalize on a wealth of insights unique to each of their patients and fully harness the future of personalized medicine and patient-centric care.
For example, increased usage of smart, portable devices in procedures such as in-home dialysis is paving the way for more versatile and flexible treatment offerings. These portable devices can provide immediate measurements of bold creatine and potassium from drops of blood patients provide on strips, making it easy for patients to manage care outside of the clinic with remote oversight from a physician. Additionally, the pandemic has accelerated the rise of remote clinical trials, where patients are no longer required to enter into a medical center to participate in groundbreaking research.
Health treatments are not just limited to improving our physical wellbeing but also are critical for improving our mental mindsets. A study by the National Health Service, based on expert one?to?one interviews and expert focus groups in addition to insights provided by The Topol Review, found that digital mental health care will and should be the future as technological capabilities increase globally and people embrace the flexibility of remote or application-based support options for conditions such as depression, anxiety and panic disorders.
With these tools at their disposal, doctors will be able to acutely understand each patient’s individual predispositions, health concerns, and lifestyle choices to develop more customized treatment plans and improve outcomes.
The Era of Patient-Controlled Health
Simply put, wearables have helped democratize our health data. People can now track their health through their own personal health portals and understand how, for instance, their health regimen, eating habits or stress levels impact their health. This is the future of patient-centric healthcare, marked by a paradigm in which our health decisions can be made in consultation with physicians, leveraging insights and data pulled from an array of wearables and testing services available at our fingertips.
The pandemic has made an indelible mark on healthcare. As we catch glimpses of what a post-COVID era looks like, we can anticipate this new health paradigm continuing. Technology has risen to the occasion, with the surge in wearables and digital health showing no signs of slowing down. As we continue to witness the widespread adoption of these care innovations, we stand to benefit from a new era of healthcare marked by technology, information and personalized support.