Advances in health care technology are making it easier for doctors and nurses to care for the sick and injured, for hospitals and insurance companies to optimize costs, and for government agencies to combat diseases and track health trends. But what do patients think of all this? What new technologies have the consumers of health care embraced so far, and what is still being eyed with suspicion?
The public has long had a love-hate relationship with technology in general, and digital technology in particular. Whether the activity involves retail, transportation, communications or anything else, virtually every advance is met with a combination of intrigue and trepidation before either settling in to our daily routines or falling into the dustbin of history. Even now, as the world comes to rely on digital services for many basic functions, consumers are increasingly worried about their privacy, their security and even their physical safety. (To learn about recent advances in health care, check out The 5 Most Amazing AI Advances in Health Care.)
According to recent research by Accenture, people are beginning to warm up to a wide range of advanced health care technologies, especially if they deliver higher levels of self-service. One of the leading applications is fitness tracking, in which wearable devices monitor activity levels, vital signs and other criteria to establish an early warning system for emerging or potential health issues. Use of these devices has tripled since 2014 to about a third of the U.S. population, while the use of mobile apps has jumped from about 16 percent to nearly half. Artificial intelligence (AI) is also seeing increased interest, with about 47 percent of U.S. consumers open to the idea of “virtual doctors” for advice and guidance, and more than half approve of robot-assisted surgery once they are informed of its benefits.
Of course, younger people tend to be more technology-forward than their elders, but seniors are the biggest consumers of health care. So what do those of the greatest generation, as well as boomers and, yes, even some of you Gen-Xers, think about all these new-fangled medical gizmos? Surprisingly, the outlook is quite positive. The National Council on Aging recently polled more than 1,000 people age 55 and older, most of whom are suffering from at least one chronic illness, and found that 80 percent expect technology to improve health care over the next five years through better diagnoses and more effective treatment.
Seniors are particularly encouraged by the prospect of electronic health records (EHRs) and their ability to alert both patients and health care professionals to sudden changes. As well, remote diagnostics and teleconferencing are expected to improve patients’ ability to consult with medical staff quickly and easily, particularly for those living with mobility issues. The caveat to this, however, is that seniors are not as willing to engage with technology that has a steep learning curve, so any tools aimed at helping the older generations should be designed with simplicity and intuitiveness in mind. (For more on EHRs, check out Electronic Health Records: Here's What's at Stake.)
Across all age groups, however, what consumers really want is a health care environment that mimics what already exists on e-commerce and mobile services platforms. NTT Data Services recently released a survey of 1,000 patients that showed high demand for digital tools to perform routine tasks like payment processing, prescription fulfillment, data access and appointment scheduling. Many, in fact, are starting to gravitate away from providers that do not offer this level of service in favor of those who do. In all, upwards of 78 percent of respondents think the “digital consumer experience” of their health care service could use some improvement.
It is important to note that this goes for health care payers and other entities, not just doctors and hospitals. NTT found that nearly 70 percent of respondents say their insurance company needs to up its digital game, while currently available tools for such basic tasks as locating a medical specialist and accessing medical information are inadequate. And across the board, large portions of the patient population feel that the current crop of mobile health (mHealth) options are either not relevant to their needs or are too complicated and require too much time. And as more of the digital generation enters adulthood and becomes more dependent on the health care system, we can expect greater demand for fast, easy and largely automated health-related applications and platforms.
Still, the overriding concern for most people is not that health care technology will fail to provide better service, but that it will fail to provide proper protection for sensitive data. A national survey conducted by Ernst & Young found that while more than half of consumers are comfortable using digital communications to confer with doctors and to send data via smartphones and connected devices, enthusiasm drops when it comes to sharing that data, even anonymously, with others. This is a concern because, by a wide margin, health care professionals agree that data sharing and aggregation can make significant contributions to societal health and the delivery of quality care.
One way to overcome patient reticence to data sharing is to incentivize the practice. When asked if they were to share data in ways that would lower costs, shorten wait times or receive tailored diet and exercise plans, interest jumped dramatically.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go before we see a Star Wars-style medical droid performing unassisted bionic hand replacements. But health care has long been a divided field when it comes to technology, with cutting-edge medicines and medical devices posing a stark contrast to the aging infrastructure and processes that support patient relations and record keeping.
Like virtually all sectors of the economy, however, health care is on the cusp of significant disruption as digital services make it easier to locate and consume highly customized and perhaps substantially lower-cost care. As with all past technology revolutions, the best way to overcome mistrust is to deliver positive results.