Taking your first steps in digital health (or, here’s the best way to eat an elephant)

There are several types of digital health technologies, and each has its own special approach. See how these systems and devices can engage today's patient/consumer.

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One thing you must do when looking to take on any digital health program is to determine which part you’re going to take on. I hear your question: You mean, there’s more than one type of digital health? The answer is yes — sort of.

There are really three main types of digital health technologies, although they all interact with each other to various degrees. They are patient engagement systems, consumer-driven technologies and physician-driven technologies. Let's compare and contrast them.

Patient engagement systems

The patient engagement category is made up of technologies that can handle all of the routine things we do with our healthcare providers — things like making appointments, refilling prescriptions, scheduling mammograms, messaging our doctors and paying bills. These are the types of activities that might typically have started with a phone call in the past. It's the transactional stuff that (if done right) can and should become invisible to the patient.

By using many of the advances in consumer engagement technology, we can make the activity of doing business with healthcare providers as seamless as possible.

Consumer-driven technologies

Consumer-driven technologies are technologies that are considered discretionary (not unlike over-the-counter drugs). These are the products and gadgets that people are buying for themselves. They include the breed of devices that we're using to manage our physical activity — things like activity trackers, step counters and athletic aerobic heart rate monitors.

Many people are using these technologies already. As a healthcare provider, I don’t know if doctors need all of the data people are tracking — maybe, but most likely they don’t.

So as far as healthcare technology is concerned, we need one set of strategies to deal with this category of "consumer things."

Physician-driven technologies

Things get very interesting with physician-driven technologies. Here, medical technology starts to have similarities with another familiar element of modern healthcare — prescription drugs. With medications, physicians write prescriptions that patients get filled at pharmacies. Your doctor intentionally prescribes a specific drug for you to manage your condition.

Use of physician-driven technologies follows a (somewhat) similar model, in that it involves doctors intentionally prescribing apps or devices (Bluetooth-enabled glucometers, for example) for patients to use. They do this because they want to manage specific conditions and they're probably interested in seeing the data that the systems collect, and they may want to add that data to patients' electronic medical records.

This process requires different set of strategies.

The point is, we all need to take everything that we see in the digital marketplace and fit it into one of these three categories and then start prioritizing which ones we want to use first.

We can do that by asking questions like these: What are the health system priorities? What supports the strategic objectives? What is our biggest problem? Consumer engagement? Chronic disease management?

As a colleague once set to me, "You have to determine what problem you’re trying to solve first."

There are technology options galore for addressing almost any challenge that we run into in healthcare. And believe me, the creativity and imagination in some of this technology is truly amazing.

Next time we’ll look at specifically how digital health can help with chronic diseases.

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