The future of whole-person care: high-tech holistic medicine

When we think about holistic medicine, many assume that it requires human-to-human touch points and, therefore, doesn’t lend itself well to technology and innovations such as artificial intelligence. In fact, holistic medicine and whole-person care advocates often view technology as manufactured or impersonal and therefore dismiss its utility for health care. This is because there is a perception that health care tech values the human experience only for the purpose of developing better widgets or to refine machine learning algorithms. As a result, it can be difficult to envision high-tech holistic medicine that is supported by a whole-person care model. Nevertheless, I see a future where both technology and holistic medicine can complement each other for the advancement of whole-person care.

Whole-person care (WPC) is seen as holistic, organic, and natural, which elevates the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of an individual. It requires the care team to consider the individual not as a patient, but as a person with a unique social and cultural background. From this perspective, it is easy to see why many who are advocates of this philosophy have resisted the progression of advanced technologies such as digital therapeutics and machine learning. However, this mindset can lead to missed opportunities to integrate WPC with technology as symbiotic partners. Doing so allows for tech to be leveraged to its full potential – as an enabler, rather than an end in itself.

The goals of WPC are to facilitate the coordination of the mind, body, and spirit with social services and wellness activities in a person-centered manner that produces outcomes of improved health and wellbeing – through more efficient and effective use of resources. This means that patients and their families are full partners in decisions about all aspects of their care. To make this so, health consumers should be connected, engaged, accountable, and informed of their health status and wellness needs. The importance of WPC is becoming widely accepted as the pathway forward for population health management; however, one question still remains: How can WPC be effectively delivered across multiple populations? I believe the answer lies in the way we use and apply technology, as it is not a threat to holistic care, rather a means to scale an interpersonal experience. Health care technology has the potential to overcome the real threat to whole-person care, which is our human limitation.

In an ideal world, hand-delivered personalized care would be available around the clock. In a tech-enabled world, we can come close to realizing this vision, as digital tools provide the means to extend care into a person’s home while overcoming the physical obstacles of distance, time, and resources. Receiving care is no longer thought of as a transaction done so at a physical location. Rather, if we truly want to create healthy populations and prevent disease and illness, then we should view care as a free-flowing integrative lifestyle experience. Caring for the whole person should happen anywhere and at any time – what a great case for tech-enabled care delivery!

Delivering whole-person care is not based solely on interactions between a patient and caregiver. In fact, if WPC is to be successful, the need for a caregiver should wane off, as the goal is to create independent individuals who can sustain and manage their own health. Tech can cultivate this independence by delivering educational content and wellness reminders to individuals right where they are, enabling them to take an active role in their own health and become self-reliant. Artificial intelligence (AI) models can forecast health needs and events well before they show symptoms to a trained human eye. These insights, when acted upon, can trigger proactive responses and interventions to mitigate and avoid these risks altogether.

Individuals in need of care are not just another diagnosis or population segment, rather are real people who can be empowered to control their own health and wellness. As illustrated in the graphic below, technology can support individuals and their families to learn and pursue healthy choices that fit their unique lifestyle and readiness. As a result, tech-enabled whole-person care can keep individuals off medications and out of the hospital: a central goal of population health management.

This type of individualized care planning is made possible by technologies such as machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence. These algorithms, at first glance, seem detached from the person – reducing the individual to a number, statistic, or prediction. However, this is far from reality. These types of advanced analytics are at the heart of driving the shift away from exclusively managing high-risk patients. AI enables the care team to have insights into emerging and low-risk individuals and thus intervene to avoid adverse health episodes. Tech-enabled WPC paves the way for the population health industry to pivot from managing disease and into a broader focus on preventative care. Technologies like AI reveal novel insights to help create plans of care that are tailored to the individual person. Intelligent care plans can encourage patients to view themselves as a whole person, whose health management plan should reflect the things that make them unique.

Using technology to deliver whole-person care allows for human connection without the limitations of physical touchpoints. Where instead of reaching a handful of patients a day in a traditional low-tech model, a care provider can reach hundreds within it. In turn, this could result in a future state where hospitals are void of preventable admissions, and pharmaceuticals are unnecessary, except in exceptional cases. This is the promise that technology has fulfilled in other industries such as banking and retail, so why not health care? It’s time for the advocates and leaders of whole-person care to broaden their perspectives and reconsider what technology and innovation can do for holistic medicine and health care transformation.

Trisha Swift is a health care executive.

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