There’s nothing new about an information-savvy patient. The novelty is the array of digital technologies and internet-based communication tools aiming at appeasing that appetite beyond just asking doctors for advice. How could medical professionals help their patients understand the most possible about diseases, drugs, treatments and alternative care with the help of innovative means? Here’s our overview.

Like it or not, patients google symptoms

One of the most visible consequences of digital health is the change in the relationship between patients and doctors. The latter are not the exclusive source of medical information anymore: search engines, online journals, and glossaries, patient support groups on social media, apps, and even chatbots are widely available if someone has a question about health-related issues.

And statistics show that people are more and more inclined to use the powers of these tools for self-education to take care of their own or their loved ones’ health. 80 percent of Internet users in the US, or about 93 million Americans, have searched for a health-related topic online, according to a study released in July 2018 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Most frequently people went online to look up information about a specific disease or medical problem (63 percent) or particular medical treatment or procedure (47 percent). They were also interested in diet, nutrition, and vitamins (44 percent) and exercise or fitness information (36 percent).

A Eurobarometer survey found already back in 2014 that six out of ten Europeans go online when looking for health information and 90 percent said that the Internet helped them to improve their knowledge about health-related topics. A study in Australia published in 2014 revealed that about two-thirds of patients who had accessed the internet in the previous month, about 30% sought health information online, and one-in-six obtained information related to a problem managed by the GP at that visit.

patient education

Although we do not have comprehensive global data, and the previous studies showed that access is linked to socioeconomic status and specific age groups (which should be changed by initiatives and policies), the prevalence of seeking online medical information is still grounded. Thus, it is the task of doctors to help their patients find the most relevant information (here is a toolkit to select the best online sources) and provide the most up-to-date tools for patient education. We support your work with the following means.

1) Ask Me About Digital badge and pin

We cannot repeat it often enough: people diagnosed with an illness or having a weird (or quite common, for that matter) symptom will turn to the wisdom of the Internet for more information. Nevertheless, the online space is full of irrelevant, fake or damaging materials, too, and it takes skills to navigate in the data jungle. You should take up the role of the guide here.

However, more often than not, patients are reluctant to discuss with their caregivers what they stumbled upon on the web or the data they measured with their health sensors at home, as they don’t know whether physicians are open to it, or they have already had a bad experience. We are eager to change that.

That’s why we designed a badge for physicians who are open to discussing websites, apps, health sensors, wearables, etc. We already sent it out to the most enthusiastic GPs to more than 30 countries around the world. Here’s how you can join the initiative!

From Chance To Choice

2) Applications for patients and doctors

Medical apps with the aim of educating patients about diseases, drugs, treatments, first aid, testing services or clinical trials are multiplying day by day. However, it is increasingly difficult to find the ones who are credible, accurate and easy to use. For example, in February 2018, a study in Cutis, a peer-reviewed clinical journal for dermatologists reviewed 44 available dermatology patient education apps – and only found nine which contained accurate information, clear objectives, and user-friendly interface. If a patient asks you whether or not they should use a specific patient education app that you are not familiar with, these are the most important guidelines to evaluate the program.

Nevertheless, you can also recommend reliable apps. MedlinePlus, produced by the National Library of Medicine, brings you information about diseases, conditions, and wellness issues in language you can understand. With Challenge Your Health IQ, you can broaden your medical knowledge through a fun trivia game. Doctor Derm teaches you about general dermatology, while Eczema Doc informs about specific skin problems. You can find more first aid or disaster-related apps or programs even taking care of your pets here or dermatology-related ones here.

patient education

Moreover, various patient education apps are specially designed for healthcare professionals on how to communicate certain conditions or diagnoses to their patients. Orthopedic Patient Education is an animation based one aiming to effectively communicate anatomy, conditions, and treatments. CardioTeach gives an overview of normal heart function and common coronary, rhythm, and peripheral conditions. The Draw MD can support doctors in explaining surgical procedures or complex treatments to their patients. The wonderful Simply Sayin’ allows clear conversations between the healthcare provider, child, and family.

3) 3D Printing

Do you know what a tumor looks like and how it’s affecting your body and inner workings of your organism? If you are a healthcare professional, your answer will undoubtedly be, hell yeah – but it’s almost certain that patients only have a very vague understanding of malignant or benign lesions. Visualization through 3D Printing could help patients get a better overview of their conditions and could make more informed decisions when it comes to deciding for or against specific treatment paths.

For example, nurses who are responsible for explaining medical procedures and critical aftercare to patients may find that 3D printers give them access to tools that significantly improve the process. A study published in February 2018 in the Journal of International Medical Research showed that after 3D printed liver models were presented to kids with tumors and their parents, parental understanding of basic liver anatomy and physiology, tumor characteristics, the planned surgical procedure, and surgical risks significantly improved. The same happened with patient-specific aortic models.

Patient Education

Moreover, medical professionals in the Netherlands already started to adopt the practice. Researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands piloted an education platform in 2015 that includes the option of converting MRI scans into personalized 3D printed models. We hope that many other departments will follow their lead!

4) Augmented reality

Both AR, VR, and mixed reality have great potential in healthcare. As AR can project digital information onto the existing environment, it has an inherent capacity for explaining complex phenomena which are hardly understandable in 2D. Thus, it can facilitate patient-doctor communication as well as patient education on many subfields starting from pharma. For example, patients might see how a drug works in 3D in front of their eyes instead of just reading long descriptions on the bottle. London-based digital development studio, Amplified Robot, created a demo precisely for such a purpose in 2014.

In another project, Orca Health developed the EyeDecide AR app, that uses a phone’s camera display for simulating the impact of specific conditions on a person’s vision. Using apps like EyeDecide, doctors can show a patient the difference between particular illnesses, demonstrate the effect of Cataract or AMD better, and thus help patients understand their actual medical state. PatientAR, an augmented reality platform developed for a medical device orthopedics company, permits interaction and guidance for knee fractures. It is designed to be used by both doctor and patient at the same time to visually review the surgical plan to understand the outcomes and risks of the procedure.

5) Virtual reality

The difference between AR and VR is that the latter shuts out everything else entirely from the view of the wearer of special goggles providing an entire simulation. Thus, VR is more immersive than AR; having very different implications for use in healthcare, as well as for patient education.

Through the same platforms and tools how VR is used for medical education, the technology can also help patients understanding medical procedures or complex treatments. On July 20, 2016, a team of surgeons broadcast a live hepatectomy from the Chinese Zhongshan Hospital. Medical students were invited to view the live surgery as part of their curriculum, but three patients that had formerly undergone the procedure were also asked to witness the experience while wearing the latest in virtual reality headgear.

VR could not only be used as visual aid after a specific procedure, but also before an intervention. Together with patient education technology company Klick Health, Boston Children’s has created HealthVoyager, a VR tool that gives patients a 3D tour of a gastrointestinal test such as a colonoscopy or endoscopy. This allows patients to view their exact results and receive a hands-on experience to understand their current medical conditions. The Department of Oncology at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark has been using VR since 2007 to offer visual understanding for patients undergoing radiation treatment. The researchers found that patients’ knowledge level increased about the radiation therapy, they were less anxious, understood the importance of following bowel and bladder treatment preparation instructions better and it provided excellent levels of communication.

Health literacy is not just the patient’s responsibility. On one hand, medical professionals should learn a lot more about how to support patient education, the patient-doctor communication and the tools to improve health literacy in med school. On the other hand, doctors must also find the time to familiarize themselves with the latest instruments to offer every available means to their patients who might not understand what’s happening around them and with them in a setting full of Latin words and frightening possibilities.

Although these new tools might result in an increased workload in the first period of their usage, they would definitely bring about a more cooperative patient, more informed questions, less stress and more quality time with patients. We believe it is always worth investing time and energy in new technologies with a mindset like that. Kudos to every doctor, nurse and any other medical professional out there who does that!