Digital Diagnosis: A New Generation of Healthcare Technology

Jun 06, 2013


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I hate going to the doctor. I mean, really hate it--so much so, I'll go days, even weeks, with a hacking cough before I finally give in and make an appointment with my primary care physician. It has nothing to do with being afraid of the doctor or what they will tell me. I know a lot of people who avoid the doctor because they have convinced themselves (thanks to WebMD) that they have an incurable disease, when in reality, they are afflicted by the dreaded common cold. My aversion to seeing the doctor is much more selfish--I just hate how much of a hassle it is.

I know I'm not the only one. How many times have you gotten to the doctor's office 10 minutes early (as requested by the receptionist) to fill out paperwork, only to finish the paperwork in 5 minutes, then sit in the waiting room for 45 minutes, and then in the actual doctor's office for another 30? I'm not necessarily blaming the doctors-most of them are spread so thin they can't help it-but the wait keeps getting longer and longer. Something has to change, right? There has to be some sort of solution or things are just going to get worse.

There might be change brewing, and it might come in an unexpected form: Apps.

Very recently, a good friend of mine told me about this new technology called hGraph. The website explains that hGraph is an open source visual representation of a patient's health status, designed to increase awareness of the individual factors that can affect overall health. Basically, it gives you (and your doctor) a holistic view of your health. If the hGraph technology is used in an app, patients can enter their health information, and then see at a glance how they rate in terms of nutrition, weight, medications, vaccinations, blood pressure, etc., right on their mobile device. What's cool about this for me is that not only can the user see this information, but so can doctors and clinicians. You can have your entire medical history in one place, just like that.

Imagine what something like hGraph will do for the future of healthcare industry (and for the time you waste in the waiting room)?

Using technology for medical advancement isn't necessarily news. Last month, MedCityNews.com ran an article about technology being the future of the medical world. They pointed out that "the adoption of innovative mobile technologies by the healthcare field significantly impacts service delivery and overall medical treatment." Even more, last year, an article on Mashable explained that 80% of doctors are using smartphones in their practices, and in fact, physicians are 250% more likely to own a tablet than other consumers. When I heard this statistic, all I could think was: finally, no more waiting for hours in a doctor's office!

I realize that it's not that simple. Obviously, not everyone will be comfortable with this kind of technology.

While writing this column, I asked a few friends how they would feel about using an app to diagnose themselves with an illness instead of having to go to the doctor, or having their doctor access their medical information through a smartphone instead of a chart. Most of them said they already diagnose themselves using WebMD, though they still go to the doctor, and would consider using an app that already has their medical history to get a more reliable diagnosis. The biggest draw for them was having their entire medical history in one electronic place. One friend pointed out that they see a variety of doctors on a regular basis, and all of these doctors could access her information from one central location, increasing their ability to communicate about her health.

Out of curiosity, I then posed the same question to my parents and a few of their friends. The answer: absolutely not (keep in mind, a few people in this group are still surprised that his/her doctor's office can submit a prescription online instead of calling the pharmacy). For them, and for many of us, traditional medical care is the answer -- to the point where we distrust new doctors who rely on technology to do their job. Shouldn't they be able to tell what's going on using the knowledge in their head instead a mobile device?

Soon apps in the doctor's office may be the norm. As the New York Times reported last year, as a new generation of doctors move into the healthcare system, the proliferation of medical apps and mobile technology used to treat patients will increase. The article notes that these apps are the "black bag of new tools: new ways to diagnose symptoms and treat patients, to obtain and share information, to think about what it means to be both a doctor and a patient." With these new tools available, wouldn't it be a shame not to use them?

Yes and no. Technology is great, and it's always wonderful to see a new generation embracing change, but as with all new trends, this one is not perfect. Doctors may find it easier to use healthcare apps, but there is a danger in patients using them on their own. Many people will refer to their app instead of seeking medical advice. It seems to me that younger people who can't necessarily afford medical insurance and don't have jobs that can offer them an insurance package are falling into this trap more and more. If they can't afford medical care, this sort of technology is a welcome option, though not, by any means, a solution to their problem.

Maybe using medical technology can help cut down on the cost of healthcare. There has to be a balance, right? Personally, I'd love a good doctor to use her iPad to help diagnose what's wrong with me. After all, human beings can make mistakes. Maybe with a mobile device in their hand - offering a digital second opinion -- the chances of making one will diminish.