The Shift to Data Storage and Instant Communication is Transforming Healthcare

Technology is all around us — just look in your hand. Texting, e-mail, Instagram, and breaking news are all right there in our hands. According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, in 2013, 56% of American adults owned a smartphone. That means 56% of American adults have a device that is almost always with them that can collect, store, and transmit data. We carry around with us powerful recorders that can digitize our life. The impact is obvious, the potential is limitless, and the risk-reward is still not completely understood. Remember reading the book 1984 by George Orwell in high school? Like it or not, somebody is collecting data on our personal and professional lives right now.

Embrace the Change?

The choice to embrace or resist technology will lead to many debates and countless discussion about the impact technology will have on privacy. Privacy needs to be center stage when discussing healthcare and technology, and there are no easy answers. Rules and regulations need to be constantly reviewed to make sure patient information is protected and that data collected leads to responsible improvement in patient healthcare. Once we navigate all the legal and ethical issues, the potential for technology in healthcare is amazing. Devices that can track heart rate, calculate calories burned, and give fitness tips have already reached the market and are being used by people all over the world. Pacemakers can transmit data via the phone to a cardiologist, while pill-sized technology can image the GI system by simply swallowing a small disposable camera device.

So far, technology that’s focused on everyday health is primarily consumer items. However, there seems to be a new movement in the direction of true clinical devices to allow constant monitoring of people to maintain or improve overall health. Developing technologies that can predict or even prevent catastrophic health events before they happen are going to enter the market in the near future.

One of the best steps we could make is a movement to a single patient electronic health record (EHR). Simply combining a patient’s medical history will improve communication between patients and healthcare providers. A central complete health record will reduce medication errors, improve the accuracy of medical history, and provide healthcare providers a better 360-degree view of a patient’s health.

Physical therapy providers will benefit from a complete medical history as a starting point during the initial assessment. A complete review of systems can be completed, as well as screening for functional limitations and other functional movement risks.

Once the EHR infrastructure is built, protected, and working, data collection can begin. Smart devices, wearable technology, and other sensors could constantly relay data to providers and ultimately add to the patient health record. Fitness data, activity levels, and heart rate monitoring are all important data to monitor one’s health. The main goal should be to understand when health providers need to intervene.

All of this sounds great, and the future of health technology is positive. However, how much is too much? Many times we give our e-mail to a store cashier without fully understanding how our data is going to be used. In the commercial world, it’s an easy bet that the data will be used by that company to make more money. Protecting PHI is vital as new technologies emerge that can improve health.

Applications to PT

Technology presents a great opportunity for the field of rehabilitation. Health initiatives in communities, prevention strategies, and health education are all areas that physical therapists and the rehabilitation community can positively influence when it comes to health awareness.

Utilizing technology will not only improve outreach, but will certainly help us understand more about the efficacy of programs and treatments. EMR systems, telehealth, and wearable health devices will help providers interact more intuitively with clients about prevention and identifying risks before those risks become health issues. The key will be to use data to develop evidence-based programs that can positively impact health, as well as give consumers tools to manage their healthcare decisions.

Data may point us to the obvious, and that is OK too. A great example is the current injury rate in youth sports. A few years ago, the blame was on increased participation. Now the attention seems to have shifted toward fatigued young athletes who are overtraining or specializing in one sport. Kids today are being treated for chronic body pain, and a common theme is overuse.

Imagine a youth baseball game in which the pitcher is not held to an arbitrary pitch count, but instead a device can detect force and mechanics coupled with software that shows when a player is fatigued and at risk for injury. Another device can predict gait patterns that are characteristics of someone at high risk for falling. The art of this technology will lie in determining the correct balance between invasion of one’s rights and improving quality of life.

Delivering the Message

Healthcare in the United States has been an innovator in diagnostics and treatments. However, we need to innovate once again, to embrace wellness instead of treating illness.

Can we leverage technology with consumers to improve health and functional abilities? The answer is yes; however, rehabilitation professionals need to be part of the leadership that delivers the message to the communities.

Rehabilitation providers can help drive healthcare to focus on prevention that truly will bring reform to the industry.

This article written by Daniel Morrill, MPT was published in the Advance for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine™  |  September 15, 2014 VOL 25 NO. 14 Edition. Daniel Morrill is president of Hinsdale Sport and Spine Therapy, Hinsdale, Ill. He is CEO of Hands on Technology Inc., developers of TheraOffice®, a fully integrated practice management suite.