From virtual patient consultations to sending prescriptions to your local pharmacy, medicine is evolving to reflect the ever-changing digital age. And with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, the field is ripe for further innovation.
How can doctors leverage digital health to improve patient care?
In the world of healthcare, EMRs (electronic medical records) have been implemented to help physicians and other clinicians keep track of patient care. The system stores patient details in a digital format, making them accessible from almost any device.
While EMRs allow for quicker and more accurate documentation, they aren’t just restricted to medical uses – you can also use them to keep track of household utilities, such as NBN (national broadband network) and electricity usage, or the balance in your personal bank account. It’s not uncommon for people to keep their EMRs open even when they don’t need to access medical records, simply because it’s convenient to have the information at the tip of their fingers.
If you think this sounds invasive, you’re right – but also wrong. Just because a record is digital doesn’t mean it’s easy for someone to get access to your personal information. For that matter, even though medical records are nominally available to be viewed by doctors and other healthcare providers, the reality is they’re often not available when needed. For instance, if you’re not registered with a specific healthcare provider, it can be difficult to find out what your medical records say about you. And what if you do end up finding out that the records aren’t accurately reflected your health status? In that case, you’ve got a serious problem, as a mistake in your medical records could lead to you being inappropriately treated or diagnosed with a disease.
In light of the risks associated with a lack of medical privacy and the inaccuracies that can result from using out-of-date records, it’s clear that there’s room for improvement. If medical records were more easily accessible and accurate, patient care would be much improved.
Why send prescriptions to a pharmacy?
One of the most time-consuming aspects of being a doctor is ensuring that patients receive the correct medication (or instructions for how to take it) at the right time. The most efficient (and, frankly, the most enjoyable) way to do this is by directly dispensing the medication to the patient, preferably from a reputable pharmacy.
By having medications dispensed to them, doctors can be sure that the correct dose is administered. In some cases, incorrect or missed doses could result in adverse effects or unnecessary suffering. Dispensing also means that patients are more likely to take their medication as advised, rather than resort to (and, in many cases, abuse) the substances if they feel it is easier to obtain what they want in illicit ways. Dispensing medication also makes it much easier to ensure that certain patients don’t have access to dangerous substances. For instance, minors and pregnant women often don’t have prescription privileges, so it can be difficult for them to obtain certain medications if their doctor doesn’t already provide them. Having medications directly dispensed would make it much easier to control who has access to what medication. Finally, having medications directly dispensed means that there’s less chance of medication errors (the type of mistake that can result in serious injury or death) because the logistics of getting the medication to the patient are taken out of the equation.
The point of this (lengthy) discussion is to stress that if medicine is going to evolve to ensure it serves the needs of people in the 21st century, it needs to reflect the changing times – and the digital age is providing a wealth of opportunity.
The rise of telehealth
While telehealth has been around in one form or another for a while now, it has, for the most part, remained the domain of (usually) rural general practitioners and other traditional healthcare providers. The services of a telehealth doctor or nurse are typically bundled into a single appointment, allowing them to keep in touch with their patients via phone or video chat.
These services are usually quite affordable and, given that they provide a face-to-face interaction between patient and doctor/nurse, are quite effective in encouraging good health behaviors and preventing and controlling diseases. The combination of effective healthcare services and affordability has meant that, for the most part, telehealth has remained the domain of (usually) rural healthcare providers. That is, until now.
The rise of the telemedicine clinic is allowing healthcare providers to reach patients where they live (and, in the case of a doctor or nurse, even provide healthcare to patients who are traveling abroad) – and it’s bringing a new and important element to the healthcare table.
The convenience and (relative) anonymity that virtual healthcare brings is changing the way that people think about healthcare – and it’s probably going to change the way that healthcare is delivered, too. Being that the majority of the population now has access to a smartphone, video chatting and videoworking have made it much easier to establish a remote healthcare connection – even allowing for a (usually) brief consultation between untethered healthcare providers and patients. And that, in turn, is changing the way that medicine is practiced – and evolving what it means to be a doctor or a healthcare provider.
Why use AI and big data for medical research?
In much the same way that the convenience of virtual healthcare is changing the way that medicine is practiced, so, too, is the potential for AI and big data in healthcare. The two are, in fact, so interrelated that it’s difficult to discuss one without mentioning the other. AI and big data have the potential to transform how medicine is practiced and, quite frankly, how healthcare is paid for.
AI has the potential to analyze mountains of (usually) unstructured data and identify patterns and correlations that were previously difficult to identify using (usually) manual (human) analysis. If AI can identify these patterns more efficiently (and accurately), it follows that healthcare providers can use the resulting insights to make better (and, hopefully, more effective) decisions about patient care. It’s early days yet for AI in healthcare, but the potential is clearly there.
It’s important to stress, though, that AI and big data aren’t a magic bullet that will solve all of healthcare’s ills. Far from it – they’re just tools that have the potential to make healthcare more effective and efficient. And in these early days, it’s still vital that humans (usually) maintain control over the analysis and interpretation of the (usually) unstructured data that AI generates. Otherwise, it’s easy for things to go wrong.
How can blockchain technology change the healthcare industry?
Blockchain technology – which underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin – can also be applied to healthcare to achieve many of the same ends as AI and big data. In particular, it has the potential to create a fully digital healthcare record, accessible to all and, hopefully, improving healthcare quality and efficiency. The technology that underpins the cryptocurrency allows for the creation of tamper-proof transaction logs that can’t be modified (and, in many cases, can’t be forged, either). These transaction logs, in turn, can be stored on a blockchain (the technology on which cryptocurrencies are based) and accessed by anyone with an Internet connection (or a smartphone).
In a nutshell, blockchain technology is helping to create a more equitable and accessible healthcare system. By ensuring the integrity of every (usually) unstructured data point about a patient (including their complete medical records), blockchain-based systems can help to eliminate the information asymmetry that often exists between healthcare providers and patients. If you think that this sounds like a good idea, you’re right – it is. And if you think that blockchain technology alone isn’t going to cure all that is wrong with healthcare, you’re also right. But, for the most part, it is something that can improve the quality of healthcare and, quite frankly, how we as a society think about healthcare.
The point of this (lengthy) discussion is to highlight that, as exciting as the future of healthcare may hold, it’s still very much a work in progress. Just because a record is digital doesn’t mean it’s easy for someone to get access to your personal information. Just because medical records are mostly digital doesn’t mean that they’re accurate – in many cases, they’re just a reflection of what (usually) people tell (or, in the case of some EMRs, what is entered by) the doctor. These are just a few of the challenges that (usually) confront doctors every day, as they work to provide the best care for their patients.