How Healthcare Technology Can (Believe it or Not) Humanize Medicine

Gadgetry that is time-saving (not to mention life-saving) can be expected to fill the breach.

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Andrey Popov/stock.adobe.com

On its face, it admittedly sounds incongruous: Healthcare technology can humanize medical care? But how? Wouldn't the opposite be true? Wouldn't tech's incursion into this sector make medicine more impersonal? Wouldn't the use of such things as telehealth platforms, which have become more prevalent during the pandemic, put more distance between the provider and patient than ever before?

Not really. The argument now is that technology allows for an ever greater connection—a connection that is constant and consistent. As a team from Deloitte put it in a February 2020 post on the website Modern Healthcare:

"(Virtual care) works within and around a patient's life, as opposed to their sickness, to deliver care when, where, and how they need and want it. Also, virtual health works its way into consumers' daily routines by being embedded in electronic devices associated with living life (e.g., smartphones and personal computers) more so than caring for sickness."

One member of that Deloitte team is Summer Knight, the organization's Managing Director in the Life Sciences and Healthcare Consulting. In her book "Humanizing Healthcare: Hardwire Humanity into the Future of Health," she argues persuasively that tech bridges the gap between patients and healthcare professionals. In fact, she believes that more tech, not less, is crucial to humanizing the sector.

She drove that point home on the Finding Genius podcast early in the summer of 2021. Knight mentioned that a digital care activation platform would "nudge" patients and providers closer together, that it would provide "a tangible connection point" that a visit to a doctor's office cannot. Moreover, she pointed out, technology like this creates a "therapeutic alliance" between the consumer, his or her support system and the healthcare team.

There are ample indications that she is on the money. The Deloitte team noted that well before the pandemic — all the way back in 2016, in fact — spending in the virtual health market was expected to mushroom to $3.5 billion by 2022.

The outbreak altered the picture dramatically, as seven in 10 Americans grew leery of visits to doctors' offices and embraced virtual care. Such visits accounted for 70 % of appointments in the early months of the crisis (up from 8% previously). That's a promising development indeed, as patients had long before discovered that while virtual appointments were shorter, they made possible greater interaction with physicians, as well as more direct involvement on the part of consumers in their own care.

Studies showed that telehealth visits became far less prevalent in the later months of 2020, shrinking to 30% of all appointments, but it is nonetheless clear that tech is embedded in the healthcare system. Consider, for example, the use of bedside tablets. Before the outbreak, they were first used by residents for entertainment and relaxation purposes, but they became a vital communication link to loved ones when government-imposed lockdowns were instituted.

Richard Mohnk, Associate CIO for Operations at Bayhealth, told Becker's Hospital Review that such tablets proved to be a "game-changer" at his facility, and while Steven Smith, CIO at NorthShore University HealthSystem, wouldn't quite go that far, he did tell that same outlet that "adjusting procedures and providing this functionality so quickly during the pandemic ... helped with preserving and improving human life."

The technology can only be expected to continue to evolve, to counter a shortage of physicians and to meet the needs of an aging population in the years ahead. According to a new report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. population, which stood at 328 million in 2019, is expected to balloon to 363 million by 2034 — an increase of 10.6%. The population of those 65 and older is, however, expected to balloon by 42.4%.

That same report indicates that there will be a shortfall of between 37,800 and 124,000 doctors by that same year. In other words, there will almost certainly be more people suffering from chronic conditions and fewer people to care for them.

But gadgetry that is time-saving (not to mention life-saving) can be expected to fill the breach, while also enhancing those connections mentioned above. The Harvard Business Review, for instance, believes tech is capable of achieving the latter aim by being user-friendly for patients and providers, by actively engaging all parties and by offering evidence-based insights.

Understand that healthcare tech has often been eyed warily. All the way back in the 1700s, there were concerns that the stethoscope would strain the bonds between physician and patient. But those concerns were unfounded then, and they are unfounded now. When used correctly, tech, far from severing those ties, only makes them stronger and improves the patient experience.

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