Need Health-Care Advice? Send Your Doctor a Text or Email

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Published April 10, 2013

| FOXBusiness

An abundance of health information may be only a click away, yet consumers are often clueless about their health, according to a recent survey.

Americans may rate themselves and their communities as healthy, but research shows the opposite is true. Nine out of 10 Americans consider themselves to be in good personal health, and 81% say the health of people in their community is good, according to an Atlantic-GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) National Community Health survey of more than 1,000 people of varying age groups and income levels.  But current obesity rates and diabetes statistics tell a completely different story. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and the American Diabetes Association reports that 26 million adults and children have diabetes.

When it comes to their own health, experts say people think they’re taking the right steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but their day-to-day behaviors fall short. Reliance on poor or disproven health habits, cash-strapped financial circumstances, complacency or “being too busy” make up the list of excuses for people to skip the doctor’s office and hop online for any health issues.

“It’s surprising people believe just about everything they read on the Internet,” says Afshin Mohamadi, vice president, Penn Schoen Berland , noting two-thirds of Americans using web resources trust the health information they find online and think it is important to their health, mostly using it for education and informational purposes.

But 40% of Americans and 32% of Americans under 30 are likely using health and medical sites to self-diagnosis and treat themselves. “This tells us a significant portion of the population is using online resources to replace the advice and consultation of a doctor,” says Mohamadi. “This may be of concern because this is general online information, and medical professionals are not providing input on how individual patients should apply the information to themselves—particularly young Americans who have the biggest appetite for using tech and may be irresponsibly predisposed to using the Internet to replace a consultation with a doctor.”

While the web is a great enabler, we may need to redirect its use, says Dr. Bob Carr, senior vice president, environment, health & safety at GSK. In tandem with referencing a reliable online source, people must be incentivized to go to the doctor.

People need to get regular checkups including dental and vision exams to identity any early symptoms of diseases or illness, according to experts at the Vision Impact Institute. Howard Purcell, an optometric physician and a senior vice president at Essilor of America, says diseases like diabetes and hypertension present early warning signs easily detectable when an eye doctor looks at the retina—a procedure that should be part of any routine eye exam.  This is of particular importance to male patients, he says, who are often slow to keep up with their physicals.

Dr. Jason Purnell, a professor of social work at Washington University, sees email as a useful adjunct to clinical treatment, particularly in rural areas and to help combat time challenges. But of course, there are downsides like being unable to get an assessment of a patient’s appearance that could lead to missed symptoms or misdiagnosis.

Even with the shortfalls, 31% of respondents say they are willing to actually pay for email or text consultations in lieu of an office visit. Mohamadi says surprisingly only 12% of respondents have emailed or texted their physician. “That’s an untapped resource especially for underserved populations who may benefit from technology’s low cost and ease of use.”

In fact, Happtique CEO Ben Chodor claims mobile technology is a helpful tool for people in lower socioeconomic areas, especially as the cost of devices decreases. A $100 phone can provide the same information as an iPhone, says Chodor, and enable a doctor to identify an emergency before a patient, saving money and averting a trip to the ER. 

Cell Phones Rule

Cell phones can help to reinforce behaviors doctors and their patients have prenegotiated, says John L. Brooks III, president and CEO of the Joslin Diabetes Center. “We see our patients four times a year. We can’t assume good behavior during [the remaining time period.]”

Patient portals provide access to lab and test results and guidance, says Brooks, emphasizing the need  for a secure connection—an essential for developing trusted relationships that eliminate the inconvenience of more appointments and time wasted in the waiting room.

HIPAA privacy standards and medical relevance have been a big issue in the space, claims Chodor. With little barrier to entry, almost anyone can build the software to monitor glucose levels or remind a patient to take Lipitor.

FDA review of apps that turn smartphones into medical devices has lagged since 2011, delaying some innovation, says Chodor who recently provided testimony before Congress on mobile health regulation. While FDA guidance is expected in October, in late spring Happtique will roll out its certification program for the remaining majority of medical apps used to schedule doctor visits, take medicine or eat right that do not require government regulation, he says. Once certified, the apps will be appropriately archived to help providers and patients integrate mobile health into their care protocols.

With 78 million people at risk for diabetes in the U.S., Brooks says weeding out less effective apps is good news for prevention.  “We don’t want patients to develop an ethnic fatalism because of genetics; we want them to have support tools.

“People don’t wake up one morning and say ‘I have diabetes;’ it’s a cumulative process. We don’t want people to avoid getting medical help for fear they will be judged [for putting themselves at risk].”

Experts say, increasingly, centers of excellence are being established for research and data warehousing and analytics; and today’s cloud-based communications capacity enables data sharing among providers and patients resulting in better health outcomes and economic benefits.

Carr says private enterprises can also catalyze new ways of improving health. Last year, GSK initiated its healthy communities program in three diverse cities, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Denver, to uncover innovative and collaborative approaches to improve health at the local level.

And when employees are exposed to corporate wellness and prevention initiatives, their grassroots community involvement helps to create healthy paradigms.  Carr says this “ripples and ponds effect” should gain momentum as younger generations who are typically motivated to enact change put down roots in their communities.

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