Beyond Dr. Google: How new technologies will affect patient-provider relationship

Here are a few words some physicians and medical professionals have used to describe patients who have turned to Dr. Google for information and advice on their medical conditions: irritating, suspicious, distrustful and challenging.

Perhaps frustrated with physicians’ continued resistance to Internet-empowered patients, Dr. Kevin Pho urged them to “deal with” the fact that patients “Google their symptoms.”

But, we all know the Internet-informed patient is old news.  I’m here with a new message from the health technology frontier that some may find sobering: If you thought the Internet had a big impact on the patient-provider relationship you haven’t seen anything yet.

It’s no secret that some innovators want to completely upend traditional relations between patients and providers.  Others view physicians as entirely replaceable.  For example, Walter De Brouwer, who is developing Scanadu a medical tricorder, remarked (perhaps half-jokingly) that “doctors are the ideal people to be simulated in silicon.”

Many in the digital health arena want to arm consumers with sophisticated, but easy to use, technologies that provide them with a rich array of health data.   They hope this information will help people understand their risk for disease, how their bodies are functioning and more.  Some may view these innovations in a positive light.  After all, if patients are more informed they might be motivated to take better care of themselves and work with medical professionals in productive ways.

But, will these technologies have a negative impact on the patient-provider relationship?  Are doctors prepared to deal with patients worried about the results of a (potentially inaccurate) personal genetic test suggesting they are at risk for a serious condition?  Will nurses be interested in engaging in lengthy conversations with patients about the results of their latest series of self-administered pulse oximeter readings?

I’m not suggesting that health providers will begin to see a flood of patients possessing complex health and medical information immediately.  But, it’s never too early to start preparing for a future where patients have much more access to in-depth information about their bodies and are unafraid to collaborate with — or challenge — medical professionals based on what they know.

Preparing for the next generation of technology empowered patients

So, how can health providers prepare for a future where patients are empowered (or confused) due to the sophisticated medical information technology has given them?  I have three pieces of advice.

1. Stay informed. Investors, entrepreneurs and others are rapidly developing new technologies that have the potential to influence patients and providers in significant ways.  It’s impossible to stay up-to-date with all of the latest innovations, but taking time to understand — even at a surface level — what’s happening in the digital health landscape will become increasingly important.

2. Prepare to counsel patients. Personal genetic testing remains controversial.  But, efforts by companies like 23andMe to popularize DNA analysis, and Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she decided to have her breasts removed partly due to the results of a genetic test, have had an impact on patients.  As the FDA noted in its warning letter to 23andMe, patients could request unnecessary medical procedures or changes to their medications based on genetic data.  In the future, doctors and other medical professionals will need to counsel patients on how to use and interpret complex health data provided via genomic, sensing or other technologies appropriately.

3. Recognize that consumers will become more, rather than less, informed.  Legislation, technology, economics and more are combining to force patients to take additional responsibility for their care while providing them with greater amounts of health information.  If patients are being asked to pay for medical services and have access to more health data, it’s likely they will be very interested in being more proactive and aggressive when interacting with health providers.

Only time will reveal exactly how new technologies and innovations influence the patient-provider relationship.  I’m optimistic it will do more good than harm.

Fard Johnmar is a digital health futurist and co-author of ePatient 2015: 15 Surprising Trends Changing Health Care

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