Was 2016 the Tipping Point for Digital Health?

I have a feeling that future historians will be writing a lot about 2016. They’ll have plenty to talk about in terms of politics, pop culture, art, technology, and international relations. When the story of this past year is written, there is one thing that I hope isn’t missed. That’s the fact that 2016 was a milestone year in the transition to digital healthcare delivery. There were many points of contention in 2016, but the public’s readiness to embrace a new, more data-driven, approach to healthcare is not controversial. The statistics from several fronts on the digital health frontier make it clear that the tipping point for digital health has been passed.

Although the idea of remote video visits replacing some in-office healthcare encounters may seem new and novel, research shows that the public is more comfortable with telehealth than one might expect. In fact, according to digital health venture firm Rock Health’s second annual Digital Health Consumer Adoption report, video-based telehealth adoption more than tripled from 7% in 2015 to 22% in 2016, with the majority of uses occurring in the last three months of the year. The report also found that across all telehealth platforms, satisfaction rates are above 75%.

The evidence that people are increasingly interested in remote provider interactions is not limited to this one report. Several others, including a study by West Monroe Partners that included more than 1,300 healthcare consumers, provide further insight. West Monroe found that more than 30% of patients have used a mobile app to communicate with their provider in real time about a specific concern. Of those who have experienced real-time communication with a mobile app, 80% prefer this method to a traditional in-office encounter.

Electronic Health Records
Telehealth is just one part of digital health. It could be argued that the heart of the modern healthcare experience is the EHR. When digital health records were first introduced, there was some pushback from patients over privacy concerns and general fears about technology. Slowly patients gained trust in the approach, and today, they would like to see even broader electronic access to health data.

Of course, ownership of their data is very important to health consumers. Nearly 87% believe that they should be in control of who has access to their information, and almost 86% say they should be told what health data is collected about them. Yet despite concerns over privacy and control, the Rock Health survey found that the vast majority of consumers (77%) are interested in sharing their health information, especially to get better care from their doctor.

A recently published report called Connected Care and the Patient Experience by Surescripts, polled more than 1,000 American adults. It found that an overwhelming majority (98%) believe someone should have complete access to their medical records, and 93% fully feel doctors would save time if their medication history was in one location. And it’s not just about saving time. Nine out of every 10 patients think that their provider would be less likely to give them the wrong medication if they had digital access to more complete patient information.

Wearables and Other Consumer Health Technology
2016 was a banner year for makers of wearable fitness and health tracking technologies. Nearly a quarter of Americans now own a wearable, up from 12% in 2015. The most popular wearable device manufacturers for all ages are Samsung (30%), Fitbit (26%), and Apple (22%). More good news for these manufacturers is that the popularity of wearables seems to be on an upswing. Of those who bought a wearable for themselves, a third did so in the last three months and two thirds made the purchase in the last six months.

Wearable technology is a great way for patients to monitor their own health and augment their efforts to get in shape, but as John Brownstein, Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, explained, “People would be more inclined to use wearables and track their health if they knew their physician was using that information and it directly impacted their clinical care.”

Smart watch style wearables aren’t the only consumer health devices gaining traction. Even novel technologies like virtual and augmented reality are being adapted for health uses such as relaxation, mental health, rehabilitation, and pain management.

There’s a lot for providers to unpack in these statistics, most notably that technology is fundamentally changing the way that consumers interact with their healthcare providers and how they track and manage their own health. There’s no doubt that even more change is on the horizon, but 2016 should go down as the year that consumer interest in digital health morphed into consumer demand for it. Smart providers will be delighted to oblige.

About the Author

Charlie is Chiron Health's expert in telemedicine regulations and reimbursement. His mission is to bring telemedicine to the 21st century one practice at a time...

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