Virtual visits are increasingly the rage amongst forward-thinking healthcare providers that want to jump on the telehealth band wagon. Extending the office visit across distance, using the same technology we use to keep in touch with loved ones (videoconferencing such as Skype and FaceTime), is a safe and logical way for providers to venture into a new tech-enabled world that may still be scary for some.
One way to think of this trend is to consider virtual visits an extension of the brick and mortar care model made famous a decade ago by companies like Minute Clinic. Offer convenient access to a care provider for a limited number of conditions.
Virtual visits can take place by either video or voice connection. These interactions are most often for indications that are non-life threatening, acute problems such as sore throat, ear ache, urinary tract infection and the like. There is also a role for this technology in follow up care for conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, but for this post we’ll focus on acute care.
We live in a headline/hyperlinked world. A couple of years back, I learned through happenstance that my most popular blog posts all had catchy titles. I’m pretty confident that people who read this blog do more than scan the titles, but there is so much information coming at us these days, it’s often difficult to get much beyond the headline. Another phenomenon of information overload is that we naturally apply heuristics or short cuts in our thinking to avoid dealing with a high degree of complexity. Let’s face it: it’s work to think!
In this context, I thought it would be worth talking about two recent headlines that seem to be set backs for the inexorable forward march of connected health. These come in the form of peer reviewed studies, so our instinct is to pay close attention.
In fact, one comes from an undisputed leader in the field, Dr. Eric Topol. His group recently published a paper where they examined the utility of a series of medical/health tracking devices as tools for health improvement in a cohort of folks with chronic illness. In our parlance, they put a feedback loop into these patients’ lives. It’s hard to say for sure from the study description, but it sounds like the intervention was mostly about giving patients insights from their own data. I don’t see much in the paper about coaching, motivation, etc.
If it is true that the interactivity/coaching/motivation component was light, that may explain the lackluster results. We find that the feedback loops alone are relatively weak motivators. It is also possible that, because the sample included a mix of chronic illnesses, it would be harder to see a positive effect. One principle of clinical trial design is to try to minimize all variables between the comparison groups, except the intervention. Having a group with varying diseases makes it harder to say for sure that any effects (or lack of effects) were due to the intervention itself.
Dr. Topol is an experienced researcher and academician. When they designed the study, I am confident they had the right intentions in mind. My guess is they felt like they were studying the effect of mobile health and wearable technology on health (more on that at the end of the post). But you can see that, in retrospect, the likelihood of teasing out a positive effect was relatively low.