Insights from Connected Health

Balancing Technology and the Human Element

By Abigail Ahearn, and Sharon Mowen

We had the privilege of participating in the Connected Health Conference in Boston. The theme, “Balancing Technology and the Human Element,” seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement that some of the earliest tech innovators may have gotten the equation wrong by focusing too much on innovating technology and too little on “humanizing” it and that, moving forward, the human element needs to be given more weight.  Much of the conference focused on answering the question: How can we leverage all the great technology we have to achieve healthcare that is higher quality, lower cost, more efficient, and more personalized?

There was no single answer, but some general guidance seemed to emerge for those venturing into the realm of digital health:

Put the “Care” back in Healthcare:

As in all industries, some in healthcare see technology as a job-killer, replacing clinicians and de-personalizing care. But it could just as easily be viewed as an opportunity to delegate tasks with lower interactive value to technology, freeing clinicians to focus on practicing their craft, and thereby diminishing burnout.  Among other things, technology can help streamline the capture of objective patient health data and support clinical decision making, which in turn empowers clinicians to spend more time in personalized dialogue and solution-oriented care with patients.

Extend Access to Underserved Populations:

Digital technologies (e.g., remote consultation, mobile text, Facetime and streaming, etc.) have the potential to extend access to high-quality healthcare to underserved populations. Telemedicine and the like can provide round-the-clock support and remote access to specialists for vulnerable, under-resourced, or difficult-to-treat populations (e.g., those lacking in mobility, rural communities, or those with conditions such as cancer in need of specialized care).

Prioritize the User Experience:

Development of digital health tools needs to lead with the user experience, not just (1) technological features for their own sake or (2) what is easiest or most lucrative for a developer to deliver.  For consumers, this means technology with features that are simple and intuitive vs. overwhelming with too many bells and whistles.  For providers, it means fitting new technology into current workflows rather than relying on radical changes in how practices run.

Harness Intrinsic Motivation for Sustained Behavior Change:

For consumers, providing monetary rewards to motivate use of health technology is a start, but financial or other extrinsic rewards won’t lead to internalization of positive health habits. For example, a patient might initially be motivated to use a fitness-tracking app if they earn points towards gift cards or lower insurance co-pays; take away the financial reward and you take away the motivation.  But if compliance leads to a sense of emotional reward (e.g., a sense of confidence or accomplishment), positive behavior is more likely to stick.  Developers must begin to find ways to harness such intrinsic motivation to create meaningful and sustainable change.

Focus on Emotional Versus Technical Connectivity:

Digital connections often come at the expense of emotional connections. More screen time for patients combined with clinicians having to spend more time with devices leads to a deterioration in interactions, relationships, and health. Hence, stakeholders in the development of digital health tools need to carefully consider the meaning of “connected health” and develop technology that runs in the background and/or capitalizes on elements/interests inherent to lifestyle. “Smart” designer eyeglasses leverage the “fashion statement” factor while also offering non-invasive features that track relevant physiological changes; a pill containing a sensor is another example of an advancement that places little demand on the patient and leverages a familiar modality of simply taking a pill.

The perfect balance between technology and the human side of healthcare has yet to be achieved, but many in the industry recognize that it is the key to success in realizing the potential of digital health.

Footnote: Speakers and panelists that informed our thinking hailed from Fitbit, Johnson & Johnson, Oscar Health, Amgen, Proteus Health, the Permanente Group, Texas Health-Aetna, Partners Health, Verizon, Xealth, MIT Media Lab, Fresh Tri, UPMC, VSP Global,  UCSF, NIH, UnitedHealth Group, Annum Health.