How digital technology is changing the way we look after our health
We live in the age of “Dr Google”, with more and more people going online to research information about their ailments before visiting a medical practitioner. And,healthcare professionals are also accessing the wealth of information available on the internet to support their diagnostic tools and treatment options.
There are thousands of health and medical websites covering every possible health condition. Would be patients are accessing popular sites, such Wikipedia, WebMD or the Mayo clinic, to research injuries and ailments and their symptoms, causes and treatments, to self-diagnose themselves before they visit a doctor.
Jackie Maiman, CEO of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association, cautions patients: “While we support self-care and wellness, people need to be careful, firstly about the source of the information and secondly, on how to interpret the profusion of information on the internet. Self-diagnosis and self-medication based on a Google search can be confusing, overwhelming, misleading and dangerous – you really need to talk to an experienced medical professional and be properly examined for an accurate diagnosis.
“A good starting point is to talk to your local pharmacist about your symptoms and he/she will be able to suggest a range cost-effective treatment solutions to relieve the symptoms of minor ailments. If your condition is more serious, your pharmacist will refer you to your doctor or to your local hospital. Most pharmacies also have clinics staffed with nurses who give advice and do basic health checks.”
Many medical websites are linked to comment platforms, social media pages and online health groups, where audiences can engage with experts and others about their issues. These can offer valuable support, especially for patients with chronic or rare illnesses, and new parents who are navigating the path of parenthood. Video content is becoming increasingly popular because it is more engaging and can explain medical conditions and treatments in a more accessible way.
“Patients are no longer passive – they want to take an active role in managing their health. Medical professionals have to recognise this and accept that patients will turn to the internet and support groups to supplement and verify the care they receive from their healthcare professionals,” says Maiman.
“As pharmacists, we are moving towards preventative medicine, helping our customers manage and supplement their lifestyles to improve their health – the new consumer is far more informed and often researches the medicines and supplements they take. We need to support and guide customers on this journey to wellness.”
Healthcare trends in our cyber-age have led to a whole new field of medicine known as Digital Healthcare, which is defined by Wikipedia as, ‘the use of technology to assist healthcare professionals to manage illnesses and health risks as well as to promote preventative health and wellness’.
Telemedicine has become standard practice in many countries, thanks to mobile phone and video conferencing technology. “Patients can video call a medical website, doctor or pharmacist to access high-quality medical advice remotely – it doesn’t take the place of a physical examination, but with visuals it can, in certain circumstances, provide enough information to make an initial diagnosis and recommend treatment and medication. A telemedicine engagement however, is no substitute for a full consultation with your healthcare professional, which is the gold standard in medical care,” comments Maimin.
Mobile health apps, diagnostics and wearables, also provide users with immediate feedback and ongoing information to help patients manage health conditions in partnership with their doctors. Tech tools that measure heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar enable patients to monitor their own health and they become useful immediate indicators for treatment. Any changes from the norm that patients encounter needs interpretation by a trained professional.
Wellness Apps, smart watches and activity trackers such as the Apple watch, FitBit, Strava, MyFitnessPal, and various food, activity and nutrition diaries which are internet connected also help consumers to track, monitor and incentivise a healthier lifestyle. They also provide a huge amount of individual data, which can give valuable insight to a person’s lifestyle, health status and habits. A number of wellness programmes in South Africa are just beginning to harness this wealth of information to assist patients to change behaviour through rewarding healthier lifestyles.
“We believe in harnessing technology to improve accessibility to health,” says Maimin.
“In pharmacies, we believe this could take the form of an app linked back to the pharmacy and their medical service providers, that helps the consumer record their health profile and medications, track their vitals, and provide customised health advice, all to help them better manage their health.”
Mobile diagnostic technologies which can measure a person’s vision and another that allows doctors to diagnose heart ailments through a person’s voice (vocal biomarkers), are leading the way in synthesizing health tracking into mobile devices.
Games and gamification of health apps is changing the way children manage their health. For example, there is an App for diabetic children which plugs into a gaming console and awards gaming bonuses for good insulin monitoring and habits, is improving their adherence to their medications.
“Digital healthcare developments, such as the gamification of health apps improves the overall fitness of patients whilst providing a social and interactive experience,” says Maimin.
“For instance, the Zombie exercise App which is downloaded and activated by the user while out jogging, and is connected via earphones or Bluetooth earpiece to the phone. The App uses thrilling voice messaging and sound effects to motivate bursts of speed . The app also monitors (through GPS) where other joggers are (in relation to the user’s location) that are logged onto the same programme and alerts you to their location – allowing for a fun and interactive exercise option where groups of friends can exercise together.”
Maimin says that a new generation of patients are emerging with the digital revolution, and healthcare professionals need to keep up with technological advances and play a role in embracing and engaging in digital technologies to improve patient care and patient outcomes.
“Pharmacies and pharmacists are not exempt and digital developments offer an exciting future that will enhance the delivery of medicine. South Africa, as a developing country, must harness the efficiencies technology can offer as we need to treat more people, more effectively and efficiently, often with limited resources. The ICPA hopes to guide the pharmacy sector as we move forward,” concludes Maimin.