Digital health technology and its implications for patient engagement were hot topics at both AcademyHealth’s 2018 Health Datapalooza and Annual Research Meeting (ARM) conferences.

At Health Datapalooza, experts discussed emerging capabilities to help women with diabetes participate in peer support groups, as well as mobile apps that promote positive health behavior changes in individuals with Type 2 diabetes. At ARM, researchers also discussed digital ways to provide peer support coaching that can help patients with serious mental illness, and shared research that highlighted technology-based referral and treatment strategies help decrease patient wait times.

Diabetes and other chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in the United States and 86% of the nation’s $ 2.7 trillion in annual healthcare expenditures are attributed to chronic disease patients. Digital health technology has documented potential in reducing healthcare costs and improving health outcomes for patients.

Looking ahead to the future of digital health tools as a best practice for engaging patients in their health, it’s important for the health industry to have the following three considerations in mind:

  1. Support and leverage patient-centered research in digital health tools. The health industry should explore innovative ways patients can be empowered and engaged in their health – not just for specific conditions like diabetes, but for any kind of chronic condition. For example, MITRE is executing a clinical study that looks at the barriers that patients face in leveraging tools for patient-generated data, and the impact the tools and this data have on the clinicians’ workflow to ensure it doesn’t add burden. This effort has included creation and testing of a prototype patient toolkit app. More research in ways to capture, connect, and use patient-generated data can greatly improve patient care and quality of life. The use of patient-reported outcomes has long been a focus of AcademyHealth’s open access, peer-reviewed journal eGEMs, with multiple articles published on a range of practical lessons learned in this area.  
  2. Ensure the security of digital health technology. As the use of digital health technology increases, the risk of cybersecurity and privacy threats also increases. A fundamental tenet of increasing patient engagement in digital health tools is ensuring that patients trust that their information will be secure from unintentional and intentional data breaches. Threat-based defense is a critical component of a comprehensive risk management strategy for securing the telehealth ecosystem. Indeed, in a recent environmental scan of data-sharing toolkits and guidance documents, AcademyHealth found that privacy and security was a key focus area across sectors – from health care to emergency response to education. In an effort to address this critical area, AcademyHealth has worked to assist digital health market entrants better navigate the privacy and security regulations.
  3. Apply health communication strategies to inform the development of digital health tools. The effectiveness of digital health tools to promote patient engagement can be further enhanced by applying health communication strategies as a part of the development lifecycle.  Health communication science is the study of the central role of human interaction in the provision of health care and health promotion. Health communication strategies can be used to inform and influence health knowledge, promote positive health behavior, reduce risk, and improve the patient-provider relationship. Further research into patient-engagement technologies and processes will greatly benefit by putting the individual or population at the center of message development, and other design aspects of digital initiatives. New research in eGEMs’ ongoing section, Better Decisions Together, highlights how complex health information can be delivered to patients in ways that they can understand and use. The papers emphasize the potential of patient-centered clinical decision support to address broad issues in the U.S. health care system regarding quality and safety while also achieving better outcomes and better patient and provider satisfaction.

As digital health tool use increases and evolves, the above considerations can help the health industry, as well as researchers and developers, accelerate creation and adoption of patient-engagement technologies. This could advance the chances that digital health tools will become key drivers in improving health outcomes among chronic disease patients, as well as improve the health of all individuals and populations.

The opinions expressed in this blog post are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of AcademyHealth.

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Susan Mbawuike

Health Communication Scientist - MITRE

Susan Mbawuike is a health communication scientist in MITRE’s Health Systems and Strategy Department. Read Bio

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