THE BLOG
08/10/2015 06:08 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2016

Advancing Health With Information Technology in the 21st Century

By Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. and Greeshma Somashekar

In the Information Age, technology is revolutionizing all aspects of society including business, shopping, finance, and entertainment. But health care is the last remaining outpost. You can use an ATM machine halfway across the globe to withdraw cash or check your balance, but if you are in a car accident three hours away, the emergency room physician will likely not have any information about your medical history. Due to the mobile device revolution and a growing focus on health applications, this may soon change. Provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) that incentivize electronic medical record use, prioritize prevention, and emphasize community based care are spurring technological innovations in America's health care system. The challenge now is to create a seamless system of care that integrates innovative new technologies to improve the health of our nation.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of wearables, smartphone apps, social media, telehealth, and big data. Each holds enormous potential for the future of coordinated health care. With the power to collect and interpret patient-generated data, these tools hold the promise of transforming the way health care is delivered, offering patients their own personalized medical advice. New technology can also connect patients and providers around the world, survey outbreaks of disease, facilitate the conduct of research, reduce medical errors, and provide online support from friends, family members and health care providers to improve disease management and adherence to care.

Wearable devices are changing the way people interact with their own health. According to a report issued by the Health Research Institute, 21% of US consumers currently own a wearable technology product. As of June 2015, there were 196 medical or fitness related wearable devices on the market, with an average price of $310. Additionally, 71% of 16- 24 year olds report that they would like to have a smart band or Google Glass. According to another study, 68 million fitness trackers and health gadgets will be shipped to consumers this year. In 2014, 70 million of these devices were sold worldwide.

In Silicon Valley, Route 128, and other IT hubs across the nation, many young, well-educated entrepreneurs are programming apps and gadgets for healthy people just like themselves. Although many people are buying these devices, less than half of consumers actually use their product every day and 10% stop using it within a month. Furthermore, these mostly healthy consumers are not the ones who need new technologies the most right now.

There are over 140 million people living with at least one chronic medical condition in the United States. These individuals and their health care providers have a huge stake in monitoring their health - after all, the novelty of a product is less likely to wear off if you are using it to stay out of the hospital or to prevent a potentially lethal event! A recent survey found that 62% of people with chronic medical illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease, spent time every day tracking their health status while only 19% of those without a chronic illness did the same.

An international group of more than 29,000 self-trackers is in its seventh year of efforts to convene users and makers of self-tracking tools. After last year's Wearables and Things conference in Washington, D.C., one physician called on techies to move away from the fitness arena alone and embrace medical applications as well. Only then can innovators bring their expertise to meet the needs of our nation's chronically ill and aging population who account for a large proportion of America's rising health care costs.

Some technology companies have risen to the challenge with new products. Patient-consumers can purchase headsets that measure brain activity, chest bands for cardiac monitoring, motion sensors for seniors living alone, remote glucose monitors for diabetes patients, and smart diapers to detect urinary tract infections. Based on data from electronic sensors that track internal body temperature, another innovation sends female users a text message when it's their optimal time to conceive a baby. A large tech company's research arm is pilot testing an anti-shake spoon to counteract the tremors caused by Parkinson's disease and is working with another company to develop glucose-measuring contact lenses for patients with diabetes. Currently, you can monitor hypertension with a blood pressure cuff or your glucose levels with a finger prick. But in the future, smart phones and other connected devices might do this automatically, alerting you, your family, and your doctor if there are significant changes if you are sick. New technologies are even being developed that will measure bodily changes from the inside out - using chips that are ingestible or float in the bloodstream. And IBM is training its Watson computer to be a cancer specialist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

While the number of new sensors and medical devices are on the rise, the smartphone is a defining technology of the 21st century. The mobile industry invested $1.8 trillion to improve its infrastructure around the world from 2009 to 2013. In the United States, 60% of adults own a smartphone. Analysts estimate that 80% of adults worldwide will own a smartphone by 2020. Today, adults living in industrialized nations use mobile phones for two hours a day on average, and teenagers use them for even longer. Right now there are over 14,000 health related apps for iOS alone. The number of mobile phone connections is nearly equal to the number of human beings on earth. That's why it is so important to invest in and develop technologies that are aligned with health priorities. This will require innovation, rapid evaluation, and rigorous measurement.

The good news is that health care is beginning to harness the power of the mobile phone. One successful initiative is the Text4Baby education campaign, launched by the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition in February 2010. Pregnant women and new moms receive text messages three times a week with information on how to care for themselves and their babies. Patient and system-wide satisfaction is high - 96% of users say they would recommend the service to a friend, and 700 organizations have pledged their support. Mobile technology is commonly used for medical applications in developing countries, and we have much to learn from these mHealth innovations. In Nepal, a low-cost mobile phone antenatal care system has resulted in women receiving more timely care. Another two-way mobile messaging system in Timor-Leste allows pregnant women to send a text to a midwife who will call back within a few hours. Yet another program called Wazazi Nipendeni, "Parents Love Me" in Swahili, was introduced three years ago in Tanzania. Since then, 125,000 pregnant women have registered for free text messages and more than 5 million messages with health information and appointment reminders have been sent.

Remote patient monitoring merges wireless technology and medical care focusing on serious, chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Some hospitals and clinics are installing routers in patient homes to collect continuous data on weight, blood pressure, glucose, and blood oxygen levels. Physicians can then make quick adjustments to care without having to bring their patients in for an expensive medical visit. These integrated systems also allow health care providers to detect issues before they have serious health consequences.

Innovative software applications that connect patients to their friends, family and health care professionals to share real-time medical information are providing new models for disease management, improving patient safety and the quality of care. Science shows that people who have more social connections have improved outcomes. Technology may help by connecting to other people who can provide social support in the early detection of health problems as well as accelerate connecting to care at times of a medical crisis.

Additionally, some clinics, hospitals and insurers are offering video consultations -- a contemporary "house call" -- to patients via Skype and other internet conferencing systems. In the way that video calls and instant messaging revolutionized the way people communicate with others, now health systems are exploring how e-health consultations for routine ailments can relieve the pressure on primary care systems that are functioning beyond capacity and perhaps reduce costs as well. Some patients find these e-visits to be cheaper and more convenient. Some doctors are even training to become 'virtualists'. Researchers say it's not clear yet whether virtual medical visits will actually reduce costs or improve health outcomes. Still, some large insurers have begun to pay for these online consultations.

New health technologies may also help providers avoid costly penalties for hospital readmissions established by Medicare under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Medicare currently spends $15 billion annually on costs for preventable readmissions. One insurance company is running algorithms on huge amounts of health data to identity patients who are sick enough to require hospitalization and then intervene before it happens. This innovative use of big data has facilitated a 40-50% reduction in readmission rates for people with congestive heart failure in their study population.

Stakeholders in medicine must work together to design and implement a new health ecosystem that takes advantage of a broad range of technology innovations. To achieve this goal, several key issues must be addressed to help realize the promise of information technology to improve health care:

1. Research

Longitudinal research on the effectiveness of technology-based interventions is required. Today, new entrants to the health tech market face an opportunity cost. Insurance companies and investors want to see evidence of improved outcomes and savings of time or money. To this end, an iOS ResearchKit was released a few months ago, allowing developers to test their health related apps on patients. An open source software framework designed for medical and health research, this iResearchKit is helping doctors and scientists gather data more frequently and rapidly from research participants who use IOS apps. Major research institutions have already developed apps with this tool for studies on asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson's disease. With hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world, consumers can decide if they want to participate in a medical research study as well as specifiy how their data will be shared with others.

Establishing research partnerships between health care organizations and technology manufacturers early on in the development process can help to optimize results. For instance, one company's digital health information is an open, secure, and cloud-based IT infrastructure that supports the collection and analysis of health data. But the widespread adoption of such a platform will require sustained relationships across sectors and significant attention to patient privacy issues. This kind of joint effort can build credibility, facilitate shared data collection, foster study design for measuring effectiveness, and help ensure that the product being built fills a specific need in the health care system.

2. Patient Privacy

Following the February 2015 cyber attack on Anthem Health, a Brookings analysis found that data breaches in the medical industry happen more often than expected. On the black market, health care information is valuable too just like financial information. While privacy is an essential element of the doctor-patient relationship, it has not necessarily been a top priority for some health care insurers. Security related spending is still only about 3% of health IT budgets. Patients can't switch their health insurance plans after a medical data breach as easily as they can switch a grocery vendor. Since even a major data breach has little to no effect on a company's revenue, some organizations have few incentives to invest in digital security. To counteract these economic forces, regulation should drive the health care sector to introduce high quality security measures in addition to existing contingency plans that deal with the health privacy and financial consequences of a health insurance system data breach.

3. Transparency

Leaders in both private and public sectors must be transparent about the cost, quality, and health outcomes of information technology (IT) use. As a result of improved performance measurement and data sharing, the goal for organizations and health IT is to squeeze out administrative waste, reduce expensive errors, better manage chronic conditions, understand consumer preferences, underscore the power of prevention and in these ways help improve the health of entire communities. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) is working to establish standards to share digital medical information more efficiently and effectively.

4. Integration

While individuals can track some of their health information, can your doctor use this data? In 2012, the ACA established rules for the "secure, confidential, electronic exchange of health information". Electronic health records hold the promise of improving health data sharing between providers, reducing administrative burdens, decreasing medical errors, and improving the quality of care. Currently, practitioners are using a myriad of health information technology (IT) systems that do not necessarily communicate with each other. The fact that patient-generated data isn't flowing into an interoperable system is another reason for concern. Developing integrated health IT platforms with patient privacy protections should be a priority for federal and private sector organizations to optimize patient care in the 21st century.

5. Policy Innovations

Perhaps one of the reasons health tech developers are so focused on consumer based apps and wearables for fitness, nutrition, weight management, and brain health is that federal approval for clinical/medical applications may take years to obtain. And without FDA clearance or approval, medical device software and apps are rarely reimbursed by health insurance. The FDA Center for Devices and Radiological Health has recently issued regulatory guidance for mobile apps. According to a guidance document released in February, 2015, oversight will be applied only to those apps whose functionality could pose a risk to patient safety if the app were to malfunction. The FDA refers to this subset of mobile apps as mobile medical applications. Manufacturers and their representatives are pushing for further changes to simplify and accelerate the regulatory process and to develop a streamlined pathway for both "medical and health software" products. Given the increasing popularity of apps, wearable and mHealth products and their potential for transformations in the health system, establishing a roadmap for FDA approval of effective health/medical software and apps will require the cooperation of multiple stakeholders involved in the process including consumers, innovators, health care providers, scientists, insurers and the government.

6. A Human Connection

With the proliferation of health technology and software, the practice of medicine is rapidly evolving. Consumers are taking a more active role in their health care, no longer necessarily assuming that 'their doctor knows best'. While the human touch, perspectives, and expertise of a physician cannot be replaced, patients are becoming more involved in their medical care due to the innovation boom in digital health. The challenge now is to ensure that a meaningful, healing provider-patient relationship can coexist with the power of high tech diagnostics, monitoring, and treatment approaches. As providers adopt a diverse array of technologies in their clinics and communities, they must continue to prioritize listening and responding to the personal health concerns of their patients and avoid becoming distracted and disconnected while entering information on health records and consulting their technological devices.

7. Multi-sector Collaboration

Collaboration between the health, technology, and policy sectors can play an important role in transforming America's "sick" care system into a real health care system. Today's wired consumers will become co-creators of their medical history and futures. Patient-generated data will flow into interoperable electronic record systems, and physicians and other health care providers will have new tools to better diagnose, treat, prevent, and educate their patients about many diseases remotely. With apps and social media, friends and family can play a vital role in disease management and prevention. mHealth is an interdisciplinary space. Digital health innovations can help promote healthy lifestyles, detect medical problems earlier, enable timely treatment, connect with friends, family and community resources, with the goal of better health outcomes and a greater emphasis on home and community based care. Additionally, these technologies can serve as a key ingredient in fueling a prevention revolution by helping ignite a culture of health in our country and worldwide.

Conclusion

In the Information Age, to advance the care of patients, new technologies including wearables, remote monitoring, text messaging, apps, and social media are being added to the 'black bag' of tools carried by physicians and other health care providers including the blood pressure cuff, thermometer and stethoscope. This technology-shaped shift in health care, if implemented with innovation and evaluation, could potentially help reduce the rate of re-hospitalizations, allow for earlier diagnosis and intervention, promote prevention, reduce costs, and improve chronic disease management in communities across our country and world. While more research is needed to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of e-health interventions and solutions, they hold great promise for health system transformations and innovation in the 21st century.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the Public Health Editor of The Huffington Post. She is a Senior Fellow in Health Policy at New America and a Clinical Professor at Tufts and Georgetown University Schools of Medicine. She is also Senior Policy and Medical Advisor at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the federal government in the Administrations of four U.S. presidents including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, and as Senior Global Health Advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also served as a White House advisor on health. She provided pioneering leadership in applying information technology to health, establishing the first health website in the government (womenshealth.gov) and the "Missiles to Mammogram" Initiative that transferred CIA, DOD and NASA imaging technology to improve the early detection of breast and other cancers. Prior to these positions, Dr. Blumenthal was Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch, Head of the Suicide Research Unit, and Chair of the Health and Behavior Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health. She has chaired many national and global commissions and conferences and is the author of many scientific publications. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the U.S. Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. Named by the New York Times, the National Library of Medicine and the Medical Herald as one of the most influential women in medicine, Dr. Blumenthal was named the 2009 Health Leader of the Year by the Commissioned Officers Association and as a Rock Star of Science by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation. She is the recipient of the Dr. Rosalind Franklin Centennial Life in Discovery Award.

Greeshma Somashekar is a senior at Stanford University, pursuing a degree in Human Biology with a concentration in Medical Journalism. She served as a Health Policy Intern at New America in Washington, D.C.