Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Digital Health - How the Human Touch is Harming Patient Engagement

In 2013 patient engagement is a hot topic in the field of health IT. Within this conversation one of the terms which is often used to describe the technological challenges involved in creating a digital doctor-patient relationship is the “Human Touch”. This concept reflects to all of the warm and fuzzy intangibles of humanity: care; intuition; instinct; etc.

When discussing health IT, or any other technology, the term "human touch" can be a very harmful term. The main reason for this is the insistence on the use of the word "human" which leads to heated debates as to the ability of automated processes or machines to provide a "human" element.

This debate quickly moves into a highly philosophical realm which can only be resolved by performing a Turing test.

The "human touch" is a means to an end.

When discussing engagement and communications technologies the outcome sought by adding an element of the "human touch" is actually the delivery of relevant, interesting, and personalized content which will drive patient engagement.

Using this definition we can now bypass the philosophical debate and engage in a conversation on the practical and the technical merits of creating such a system.

Technologically, it is possible to develop communications systems which respond to patient data both demographic and medical and use the information known about a patient to select the most appropriate content to deliver. These systems can deliver localized messages, discussing issues and conditions relevant to the patient, and can even alter the tone of the conversation based on the patient's responsiveness.

Moving into the digital health age, a focus needs to be placed on creating digital patient engagement without the need to involve the practitioner or his staff except at key points (such as regular check-ups or events requiring a doctor's attention). As such there is a need to fundamentally revise the 5 pillars of patient engagement described in the article.

Rather than focusing on engaging patients by "showing you care" patient engagement must focus on ensuring that the messages the patient receive are highly targeted, highly individual and provide the patient with practical benefit. The doctor in this equation should be more "hands off", while the patient should be assuming most of the "hands on" responsibility.

As health technology evolves it will be important to consider engagement as a practical function of any patient-facing system. Digital engagement technologies should be incorporated into the design of the systems to ensure continued patient participation and to enable the systems to achieve practical patient outcomes over the long term.

By leaving the “human touch” to the healthcare practitioners, health technologists can focus on developing automated systems to generate digital responses. By doing this, the goals of healthcare technology can focus on improving patient engagement and delivering value to both patient and practitioner. 

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