Digital health technologies are reshaping the way healthcare works. Devices like wellness trackers, smartwatches and mobile apps are changing the way patients track and manage their health. This has resulted in an increased interest in accessing medical records among patients and a substantially expanded engagement with the healthcare process.
Providers, meanwhile, are monitoring patients through connected glucose monitors, blood pressure cuffs and thermometers and sharing their health data through patient portals. By keeping an eye on patients between visits, they’re avoiding needless crises and getting a better sense of their daily ups and downs.
As these trends converge, doctors and hospitals are beginning to add digital health data to their electronic medical record (EMR) systems. As it gets easier to integrate digital health data into care records, EMRs are evolving from sources of discrete data points to a more complete record offering insight into a patient’s daily routines and symptoms.
Eventually, as the providers continue to trust and use this data, EMRs will support dynamic, personalized healthcare delivery rather than recording what’s already been done. But getting there will take some work.
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Background on Digital Health Trends
To put these issues in perspective, let’s start with some statistics on digital health tech adoption:
- Makers of wearable health devices such as fitness bands and smartwatches will be shipping 48 million units this year, up 14% over 2016
- The global digital health market, which was $51.3 billion in 2015, will have a combined annual growth rate of 25.9% each year until 2024
- 15% of US consumers are using wearable health devices
- 88% of consumers used at least one digital health tool in 2016, and 46% used three or more categories of digital health tools
- The most common metrics recorded using an app are physical activity (44%) and heart rate (31%)
- 77% of patients said they were willing to share their health data, especially if do so helped improved their care
- 62% of the American Hospital Association’s Most Wired Hospitals for 2017 are adding data reported by patients to their EMR
- 19% of respondents to a Medical Group Management Association survey released this year said that their medical practice used data from patients’ consumer health wearables
As the stats suggest, most consumers use some form of digital health tech, be it wearables, apps, telemedicine or even virtual reality platforms. And they’re doing it without their doctor’s input. While providers usually drive medical technology adoption, surging consumer interest has powered most of the digital health market’s growth.
Providers, for their part, have been more conservative. Most aren’t adding digital health data to patient records yet, largely because they don’t trust that it accurately measures patient health. They have good reasons for their skepticism; for example, a recent study reviewing five major wearable health trackers found that none of them were less than 20% off when measuring consumers’ energy expenditures.
Obstacles to Digital Health Data Use
Data accuracy problems is just one of the challenges holding providers back from integrating digital health data into EMRs. The big obstacle to digital health data use is that it’s still hard for providers or vendors to exchange records with each other.
While many companies are working on the problem, as things stand currently, vendors might have to interface with dozens or even hundreds of EMR systems to push the data to providers. Tools are emerging to aggregate and share consumer digital health data (such as open-source platform Shimmer) but the problem is far from solved.
Another issue is that EMRs typically store data differently than digital health tools. EMRs are built around structured data, such as dates, patient names and diagnosis codes, which is standardized, pre-defined and accessible from a database. Digital health data may not be stored in the same format as the EMR database, which could make it difficult to use. In other instances, digital health data may be flat-out impossible for a given EMR to recognize.
Not only that, but doctors who try to use digital health data face a “quality vs. quantity” dilemma. When using a traditional EMR, providers document encounters one at a time and enter a predictable set of observations. On the other hand, consumers may be generating data on their wearables every week, day, or even around the clock, tracking functions ranging from sleep monitoring to exercise tracking to medication compliance. How much of this information do doctors really need? Nobody has a good answer yet.
Providers need digital health data
Still, healthcare providers have compelling reasons to bring digital health data on board and integrate it into their EMR. If nothing else, they need to have a much better grasp of what patients do between medical appointments if they want to deliver better care, and patients’ digital health devices are the only source for this information at present.
In addition, healthcare organizations need to meet patients on their own turf if they hope to meet their needs. According to one study, 68% of health executives believe that their organizations are entering entirely new digital industries, some of which have little to do with traditional brick-and-mortar care. The better they understand consumer health behavior and needs, the more likely they’ll be successful.
What’s more, some healthcare technology experts believe that digital health input will offer great benefits when cross-referenced with standard patient records. While a physician might not get much from thousands of health tracker readings, data scientists can use them to great effect. For example, they can make much better predictions about a consumer’s susceptibility to a given disease.
Given these benefits, all signs point to digital health vendors and providers continuing to chip away at their data exchange problems. The truth is, even if they have reservations, providers have little choice but to take digital health data more seriously. Their patients won’t have it any other way.