By Kirk Larson, regional chief information officer, NetApp Healthcare
I recently came across an article on how technology helps revolutionize healthcare, specifically the care of premature babies. According to the article, as recently as 2009 doctors caring for premature babies were measuring vital signs (heart rate, respiration, blood oxygen) once an hour on a clipboard with pen and paper. While an accepted practice, this monitoring technique wasn’t giving them a sufficiently complete picture of the infants’ condition. What was happening the other 59 minutes when the doctor wasn’t present? Were there trends that ultimately could improve the well being of the patient?
When they started using monitoring technology to measure vital signs, doctors soon became more aware of their patients’ condition and better able to identify trends. For example, a telltale indicator of infection is an increase in the baseline heart rate. By measuring data constantly instead of once an hour, doctors could identify this trend sooner and provide appropriate care accordingly.
Big Change, Big Impact
Small changes like this are having a big impact. But there are also cases where medical technology is enabling big changes that are having big impacts.
Take the use of electronic health records (EHRs) for population health management. Population health management is a practice that enables caregivers to identify outbreaks of things like influenza in near real time. Doctors leverage EHRs to review patient symptom data in aggregate and extrapolate conclusions based on that data. Before EHR’s made this possible, regional healthcare organizations often didn’t realize the extent of an influenza outbreak in their area until weeks later. This technology could have huge implications for early detection of potentially lethal outbreaks such as Ebola.
The healthcare industry arguably has access to more data than any other industry. And while this wealth of data can lead to benefits such as cost-savings, efficiencies and more accurate diagnoses, it also has a definite human impact that fundamentally changes the doctor-patient dynamic. There are times when the appropriate provider is being matched to the absolute level of care. Take, for example, situations where an ailment doesn’t require a physician.
In the past, an individual who felt ill might visit a doctor or an emergency room. Today, this may not be the most cost-effective (from the patient’s point of view) action. Indeed, medical practices are increasingly leveraging physician assistants and nurse practitioners. These mid-level providers, as they are known, can often treat a variety of conditions faster and more affordably than a hospital.
Looking to the Future
In the next 10 years, I believe we’re going to see an evolution, rather than a revolution, in technology. Existing tools will be made easier to use for caregivers and patients alike. Tools will go from the obtuse, command-line driven variety of the past to touch-enabled, media-rich instruments that are emerging today. Eventually, these tools will more closely match the beautifully and expertly designed software that patients and caregivers have already come to expect in the consumer devices they use in their everyday lives.
I also believe we will see much more patient engagement. This will be driven partly by the refinement of technology and also by the younger generations. Millennials expect more engagement from healthcare providers, and they will be actively involved in their own care. Younger doctors are more technologically savvy. They expect tools and metrics to match not only their training and schooling, but also what they use in their everyday lives.
We’re also going to better manage and act on data. It will be more readily converted into meaningful information to benefit population health management programs. Providers might also make use of practices we’re starting to see in retail, such as receiving text messages about a sale in a store you’re standing in. The medical equivalent might be a health advisory pushed to your phone when you buy a ticket to a flu-stricken city: “Going to be in Chicago next week? There’s a flu outbreak—get your flu shot!”
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