Digital health might be ready but are Patients?

“Better” appears to have all the makings of a digital health success story: based in Palo Alto, Rock Health advisor as CEO, Social + Capital Partnership, and backed by Mayo Clinic. So the latest press release was a bit of a surprise:

“Digital health startup Better is calling it quits”

Weren’t they offering what patients want and need in healthcare: “free tools and premium access to a team of real Personal Health Assistants so you can spend more time improving your health, not managing the logistics”?  Perhaps Better, and many other digital healthcare startups, are expecting too much of patients. People are savvy consumers, but what that doesn’t make them savvy patients.

Working 20 years in an ER has only lowered my expectations of patients understanding their health. “I take a yellow pill doc”. I don’t like to be disparaging about patients but some call my job “life guarding in the shallow end of the gene pool”. Personally I don’t think it is a genetic defect but just human nature to be uninterested in our health, until the ambulance ride to the ER with chest pain.

Google discovered the lack of interest when they pushed their free Google Health. They even piloted the program with famous Cleveland Clinic. They tried for 3 years to get people to simply enter their personal health information (PHI). The web available PHI would guide healthcare workers – like me – to give better care by knowing things like the name of a medication not just the color. But in the end it was shut down because of the lack of widespread adoption.

Is the lack of interest in part the lack of understanding?

In my estimation many digital health companies appeal to healthy, young people who are also monitoring steps and food intake with fancy wrist bands. Unfortunately they aren’t really the ones spending trillions of healthcare dollars each year. If digital health is part of the “cure” for costly healthcare they should be helping the sick not the healthy.

When patients says they take a “yellow pill” or they “don’t have health problems” but are on three medications, the system has failed. The failure is both a patient and clinician problem. “Only 12% of adults have proficient health literacy and over a third of US adults have trouble reading and acting on health related topics”.. And doctors fail 80% of the time to effectively explain things to patients. This is where digital health could have a profound impact.

Digital gives healthcare the ability to help healthcare illiterate patients with digital images and videos. Digitized also means contact, education and reminders can happen before, during and after their brief “patient” experience. When effectively applied, digital has the power to not just transform patients into better consumers but most importantly into better patients. Patients that understand their health conditions and not only what that yellow pill is, but why taking it improves their health and avoids further care costs. And at the same time it can actually simplify the clinician’s workload.