Questions to ask when considering new medical technology

“Hey doctor, what do you think about this product/solution/service?”

These days, I look at a lot of websites describing some kind of product or solution related to the healthcare of older adults. Sometimes it’s because I have a clinical problem I’m trying to solve. (Can any of these sleep gadgets provide data — sleep latency, nighttime awakenings, total sleep time — on my elderly patient’s sleep complaints?)

In other cases, it’s because a family caregiver asks me if they should purchase some gizmo or sensor system they heard about. (“Do you think this will help keep my mom safe at home?”)

And increasingly, it’s because an entrepreneur asks me to check out his or her product.

So far, it’s been a bit of a bear to try to check out products. Part of it is that there are often too many choices, and there’s not yet a lot of help sifting through them. (And research has shown that choices create anxiety, decision-fatigue, and dissatisfaction with one’s ultimate pick.)

But even when I’m just considering a single product and trying to decide what to think of it, I find myself a bit stumped by most websites. And let’s face it, if I visit a website and it doesn’t speak to my needs and concerns fairly quickly, I’m going to bail. (Only in exceptional cases will I call or email for more information.)

So I thought it might be interesting to try to articulate what would help me more thoughtfully consider a product or service that is related to the healthcare of older adults.

My questions when considering a new technology

To begin with, here are the questions that I think about when considering a new technology:

  • Does it help me do something I’m already trying to do for clinical reasons? Examples include tracking the kind of practical data I describe here (sleep, pain, falls, etc), helping patient keep track of — and take — medications, helping caregivers monitor symptoms, coordinating with other providers…my list goes on and on, although I’ll admit that I prioritize management of medical conditions, with issues like social optimization being secondary. (Social optimization is crucial, it’s just not what physicians are best at, although I certainly weigh in on how an elder’s dementia or arthritis might affect their social options.)
  • What evidence is there that using it will improve the health and wellbeing of an older adult (or of a caregiver)? Granted, the vast majority of interesting new tech tools will not have been rigorously tested in of themselves. Still, there is often related and relevant published evidence that can be considered. For instance, studies have generally found that there’s no clear clinical benefit in having non-insulin dependent type 2 diabetics regularly self-monitor blood glucose. (And it is certainly burdensome for older people with lots of medical problems.) Hence I would be a bit skeptical of a new technology whose purpose is to make it easier for older adults to track their blood sugar daily, unless it were targeted towards elders on insulin or otherwise at high risk for hypoglycemia.
  • How does the data gathering compare to the gold standard? Many new tech tools gather data about a person. If we are to use this information for clinical purposes, then we clinicians need to know how this data gathering compares to the gold standard, or at least to a commonly used standard. For instance, if it’s a consumer wrist device to measure sleep, how does it compare in accuracy to observation in a sleep lab? Or to the actigraphy used in peer-reviewed sleep research? If it’s a sensor system to monitor gait, how does it compare to the gait evaluation of a physical therapist? If it’s the Scanadu Scout Tricorder, which measures pulse transit time as a proxy for systolic blood pressure, where is data validating that pulse transit time as measured by this device accurately reflects blood pressure? (BTW I can’t take such a tricorder seriously if it doesn’t provide a blood pressure estimate that I can have confidence in; blood pressure is essential in internal medicine.)
  • How exactly does it work? Especially when it comes to claims that the product will help with clinical care, or with healthcare, I want to know exactly how that might work. In particular, I want to know how the service loops in the clinician, or will facilitate the work the clinician and patient are collaborating on.
  • How easy is it to use? Tools and technologies need to be easy to use. Users of interest to me include older adults, caregivers, and the clinician that they’ll be interfacing with. BTW, all those med management apps that require users to laboriously enter in long drug names are NOT easy to use in my book.
  • How easy is it to try? Let’s assume a new technology is proposing a service to the patient (or to me) that offers plausible benefits, either because it’s a tech delivery of a clinically validated service, or because it passes my own internal common sense filters. How easy is it to actually set up and try? I’m certainly more inclined to explore a tool that doesn’t require a large financial investment, or training investment.
  • How cost-effective is using this technology? I’m interested both in cost-effectiveness for the patient & family, and also for the healthcare system. Sometimes we have simpler and cheaper ways to get the job done almost as well.
  • Can this technology provide multiple services to the patient? My patients are all medically complex, and have lots going on. Products that can provide multiple services (such as socializing with family off-site AND monitoring symptoms), or that can coordinate with another product — perhaps by allowing other services to import/export data — are a big plus.
  • Does this technology work well for someone who has lots of medical complexity? As I mentioned in my comments on the Health Design Challenge, I always want to know if the product is robust enough to be usable by someone who has a dozen chronic conditions and at least 15 medications.

What I’d like to see on the websites

These days, a website is the generally the place to start when looking into a product or service.

It’s a great help to me when a product’s website addresses the questions I list above. Specifically, I find it very helpful when websites:

  • Have a section formatted for clinicians in particular. I’m afraid I don’t have much time for gauzy promises of fostering a happier old age. I just want to know how this will help me help my patients. Specific examples are very very helpful.
  • Have a “how it works” section with screenshots and concise text. Personally, I have limited tolerance for video (videos can’t be skimmed the way text and pictures can) and find it a little frustrating when most information is in videos. Note that it’s probably best to have separate “how it works” sections for clinicians and for patients/caregivers.
  • Provide a downloadable brochure for patients/families, and another for clinicians. Although it’s annoying when information is presented ONLY in a pdf brochure, I’ve discovered that I quite like having the option of a brochure. Brochures are much easier to read than websites, in that you don’t have mentally decide how to navigate them, or search through them in quite the way you do with websites. Also, brochures can be conveniently emailed to colleagues or patients, which is nice when you want to suggest that your patient try something new.
  • Include information regarding the relevant evidence-base supporting use of the product. It’s nice to not have to go digging through the literature myself, to see if this is likely to help my patients.
  • Include information on how valid/accurate the data collection is compared to conventional clinical practice. And make it easy to find. I just tried looking for such information at www.myzeo.com and it took way too long to find, in part because they don’t seem to have a section meant to help a clinician who is asked “Can I use this device, doc?”
  • Offer a free 30 day trial. Especially when people have a lot of choices, or have other psychological hurdles to clear (like figuring out exactly how will this work), it’s nice to get the option to try something for free at the beginning.
  • Summarize how the product is different or better than similar available products. Often there are several companies offering a product for a given need (caregiver coordination, med management, etc). It’s nice to be able to quickly figure out what is unique or better about a particular product.

Summing it up

I’ve found it fairly tiring to look into new technologies, because it usually requires a lot of effort to figure out whether this technology is likely to help my older patients, and how exactly it might work to try the technology.

In general, if companies want clinicians to easily engage with their product, they may want to consider creating a section of their website, designed specifically to answer the concerns of clinicians.

Leslie Kernisan is an internal medicine physician and geriatrician who blogs at GeriTech.

View 2 Comments >

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories