5 ways to use your smartphone to improve doctor visits

When I became a caregiver to my dad, I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to keep all of his medical information in my head. My smartphone became my second brain. It helped me to track his symptoms, keep up with the dates for his appointments, document recommendations, and share this information with my sisters in a timely and coherent manner. Here, I share five ways patients and caregivers can use smartphones to enhance their encounters with physicians.

Photos

We’ve all heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, smartphones aren’t just for taking selfies. If you or a loved one has a rash, a skin infection, a swollen joint, or any other condition that is changing rapidly, take pictures with your smartphone and show them to your doctor. These photos are an invaluable way to show the physician the progression of an illness. In my clinical practice as a pediatric hospitalist, photos like these have often helped me provide better care.  Photographs can also be a useful way of maintaining an up-to-date medication list. Before leaving the house for an appointment or an Emergency Room visit, gather all of your medications and take a photo of the labels, making sure to clearly capture both the name and dosage.

Notes

The notes feature in your smartphone is a fantastic way to document key information provided at doctor’s visit, such as treatment recommendations. Even if your physician gives you a visit summary, it will most likely provide a big picture view of the visit and not include many of the details. Be sure to tell the provider that you are taking notes so that: 1) He can accommodate your efforts by slowing his speech, and 2) He won’t assume you are texting or on social media. You can also use the notes feature before the visit to list your concerns, questions you’d like to ask the doctor, and details about your symptoms.

Calendar

There are several ways your smartphone’s calendar feature can help you navigate health care. The obvious one is to use the calendar to keep up with medical appointments. After entering the appointment, be sure to set an alert as a reminder. Your phone can also help you remember your medications. Put a recurring appointment (e.g., “Take blood pressure medication”) in your calendar with a timed alert.  Another great use of the calendar is to document the course of your illness. When a medical problem has been going on for more than a few days, it can be very difficult to recount an accurate timeline. When you experience a new symptom or worsening of an existing problem, click on the day and write a brief description. Lastly, for female patients, the calendar is also a great way to keep track of your last menstrual period.

Audio recordings

Using your smartphone to record portions of a doctor visit in order to review instructions or share information with family caregivers at a later time is a great way to be an active participant in your health care. However, this is a controversial practice and one with potential legal implications. A recent article in JAMA explored the legality of recording visits with health care professionals. The laws that govern this practice are known as “wiretapping” or “eavesdropping” laws and vary by state. Eleven states and Washington, DC have adopted “all-party” laws. In “all-party” jurisdictions, both the patient and the physician must consent to the recording. In these states, it is illegal to record a conversation with your doctor without his/her permission. Conversely, in “one-party” states a patient can legally record an encounter without the permission of the health care provider. Of note, some “one-party” states ban recordings when the recording device is hidden from plain view. In my opinion, secretly recording doctors is never appropriate. We all saw the viral video of the Florida physician yelling at a patient that was secretly recorded by her daughter. While the doctor’s behavior was inappropriate, his reaction to being secretly recorded is understandable. I am a proponent of using technology, but I do not endorse recording health care providers without their permission. If you want to record your doctor, just ask. Many of them will be happy to oblige.

Telemedicine

Telemedicine, defined by the American Telemedicine Association as “the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status,” has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 5 to 10 years.

Through the use of web-based patient portals, you can access the results of your laboratory or radiology results with just a few clicks on your smartphone. You can also have a real-time remote visit with a physician using video conferencing software or an app installed on your smartphone. While these visits were initially used primarily to reach patients in rural areas with poor access to health care, they are now equally popular in urban and suburban settings, where they are used both for convenience and to avoid potentially unnecessary urgent care or Emergency Room visits. During natural disasters, telemedicine providers can be a safety net for displaced evacuees who are unable to access local medical facilities. Many employers and insurance companies offer telemedicine visits as a benefit, and millions of Americans are taking advantage of the ability to see a doctor without leaving their homes.

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in November 2016, approximately 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, double the amount since the prior survey in 2011. There are many ways to use your phone’s technology to partner with your physicians and optimize your health care experience. It is likely technology will continue to play a large role in health care. I hope that patients and caregivers will be at the forefront of this innovation.

Nicole Rochester is a physician and founder, Your GPS Doc, LLC.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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