These days my physician colleagues and I are up to our necks in a health technology revolution. To be honest, its not as captivating as Pinterest or socially-engaging as a Google Huddle but to be sure your life will depend on it. The revolution ushered in by electronic health record (EHR) is less about the technology than the widespread impact it will have on patient care. Rather than digging through stacks of paper charts, your doctor will have ready access to all of your health history on a digital device. And not just your health history, soon I will be able to combine it with the history of other patients in my practice: the digitized data will allow me to track the childhood obesity rate in my clinic and trend it over time with just a click (or tap). But look out, there are glimmers of another emerging health tech revolution.
I recently attended the Health Innovation Summit organized by Rock Health, a seed accelerator for health startups based in San Francisco. Coming from the bureaucratic and comparatively stagnant world of health care systems, this event made me feel like I could dream again. Speakers provided pearls of wisdom for an engaging design. Panels offered strategic advice to attract VC and Angel funding. Most exciting was the chance to hear from entrepreneurs, each of whom offered their own incremental solution to improve health.
Take something like Cardiio, which measures heart rate in a few seconds by scanning your face. Imagine how future related technologies could replace monitoring wires and tubes thereby improving comfort during a hospitalization and reducing hospital acquired infections.
Business wisdom dictates that a successful entrepreneur have an intimate understanding of the intended user. In health care, the corollary is to know how the product fits into the user’s work flow. The work flow includes every step from the scheduled appointment to the end of the visit and any follow up contact. As a busy primary care physician, I can’t afford to use something new unless it is convenient to access and makes my normal work routine easier. But for a patient, how can the products featured in the conference fit into their personal health work flow?
Here is a case study of a not so distant and very possible future:
My mother has chronic back pain, the second most common reason patients see doctors. She has been on Health Tap soliciting advice from participating physicians about treatment options. One useful recommendation comes from a physician who practices in her area so she decides to go see him in his office. Being a good son, I have been doing my own research for her back pain so I send the doctor some key articles via Docphin, a health information aggregator for health professionals. During the back exam my mother admits that when busy, she may not pay as much attention to her posture as she should. The doctor discusses good posture and shows my mother how she can keep tabs on her posture throughout the day by attaching a sensor to her back and using the LumoBack app. The physician notes that my mom appears to be under a lot of stress and suggests she try the Azumio stress app to assist her with making small adjustments in her lifestyle for large reductions in stress. And while she is thinking about small changes, she also suggests using Bud.ge to help develop other healthy habits. My mom tends to forget things so I worry that she is not taking her medications as prescribed. With these ingestible sensors her physicians and I can track the “when” and the “which” of each medication she takes
But lets be honest. Compared to the central role of EHR, many of these emerging technologies are only tinkering on the edge of vast needs in health. History says that most startups will fail. But it is time to pay attention because some of these products or their future iterations will revolutionize our lives.
Ricky Y. Choi, MD, MPH is pediatrician in Oakland, CA and health technology entrepreneur. He is Co-Founder of HealthBegins, a nonprofit think-tank that demonstrates how smart medicine begins upstream. He is also a City Brights Blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle where he writes about health technology innovation and the use of social media to improve health. Follow him on Twitter @rychoimd