We Need To Define Digital Health
The authors of the paper argue that digital health means a qualitative change on the horizon of healthcare transforming its very nature. And while it comes down to the countless disruptive technological innovations that are flooding the medical field in the last couple of years, the essence of this change is not technological, but cultural.
Technological transitions have taken place in healthcare before, explains the paper, but this is the very first time that they lead to a meaningful transformation of the status quo. When personal computers became widely available in the 1990s, e-health emerged. When such computers could be connected into networks, telemedical services appeared. The rise of social media networks gave space to medicine 2.0 and health 2.0; while penetration of mobile phones and later smartphones summoned mobile health. But from the 2010s, the rate at which disruptive technologies appear is inducing a qualitative change for both the patients and their caregivers.
The paper calls this new phenomenon “digital health”, and define as
the cultural transformation of how disruptive technologies that provide digital and objective data accessible to both caregivers and patients leads to an equal level doctor-patient relationship with shared decision-making and the democratization of care.
The authors describe that the use of technology only leads to better health outcomes if the related cultural challenges are acknowledged and the new needs of patients are met. That’s why we needed this definition – as part of acknowledging the changes around us.
What Will The Future Of Healthcare Look Like?
With the rise of digital technologies, such as artificial narrow intelligence, robotics, virtual reality/augmented reality, telemedicine, 3D-printing, portable diagnostics, health sensors, wearables, etc. the entire structure of healthcare, as well as the roles of patients and doctors, will fundamentally shift from the current status quo.
In the infographics below, I summarized the cornerstones of the coming changes comparing the current, traditional healthcare system, its structure and its roles with the modern healthcare system characterized by digital health.
Digital Health Raises Challenging Questions
The transformation of traditional healthcare leads to some serious ethical considerations and challenges policy-makers in unprecedented ways. Who should have access to health data? Is it lawful if employers or insurers want to gather data from their employees’ direct-to-consumer genetic testing results? What if someone hacks medical devices? How will we deal with medical robots? Whose responsibility will it be if it makes a mistake during surgery? What about gene editing and the possibility of designer babies? Should someone have the chance to pre-plan a human embryo?
Policy-makers, medical professionals and basically every responsible person should contemplate about the possible responses to pressing ethical questions and the challenges digital health means. As the waves of technologies are already flooding patients, the faster the appropriate answers come from the regulatory side, the better for the whole society. The reluctance and lack of incentives for physicians as well as policy-makers in this cultural transformation make patients the leading driving force in initiating changes. Although there are positive examples as the story of the FDA approving an artificial pancreas as the result of the #WeAreNotWaiting movement, individual entrepreneurship skills should not define patients’ health outcomes in the long run.
Medical Professionals & Policy-Makers Should Be The Guiding Lights
No matter how difficult it is, medical professionals and policy-makers should always be one step ahead of technology. They must take up the role of guiding patients through the myriad of digital health technologies – but it is only possible if they are up-to-date and open-minded. On the one hand, they must ensure patients don’t turn to non-proven services or technological solutions, on the other, they must involve patients as partners in designing care and decision making.
As disruptive technologies have the potential of taking away repetitive and monotonous tasks from physicians, they will be able to dedicate their focus to the patients as guides through digital health. Moreover, medical professionals will be able to go back to the very basics of healthcare. They could provide empathy, social care and the human touch which seems to be so scarce in traditional medicine.
And what other goals could digital health possibly have than healing patients with empathy and the best of knowledge?