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The State of Digital Health

Digital health is one of the hottest buzzwords in health care. It seems like a new health care app is on the news every day, and big data, we’re told, is on the verge of ushering in an era of personalized, efficient medicine as we’ve never seen before. But what does this mean for the health care provider, the medical student and the patient today?

To find out, I recently attended the Connected Health Conference in Washington, D.C., where public-sector and industry leaders on mobile apps, personalized medicine and product development came together to share their work, challenges and vision for the future.

The conference kicked off with a keynote by Patricia Mechael, who talked about the concept of digital health in context to the other terms we keep hearing — for example, “mHealth,” “health IT” and “health informatics.” Digital health includes all of this and more — everything from wireless devices and telemedicine to health information technology and personalized medicine. Connected health, the conference’s namesake, refers to the aspects of digital health without the genetics component.

The Cost of Disconnection

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the countries with the highest percentage of connected health devices in use are China (28 percent), India (26 percent) and the United States (21 percent). The countries with the least percentage of connected health devices are a little less predictable: Japan, Poland, Peru and Russia. What’s even more interesting is the top barriers that were cited by those surveyed: lack of knowledge and cost. For physicians interested in integrating digital health into their practice, this raises an important question. Will reducing cost and spreading awareness about the power of connected health devices be enough to get everyone on board, or are the connected health devices today simply not solving the problems of the average user? According to research done by Ipsos Healthcare, only 49 percent of American patients would use a device or tracker as part of their treatment plan, even if it was recommended by their health insurance company.

Did you know: The countries with the least percentage of connected health devices are a little less predictable: Japan, Poland, Peru and RussiaAs a millennial and Bay Area native, I found this number pretty shocking. Coming from a world where checking your step count is as natural as checking the news, it was hard for me to believe that someone wouldn’t want to try an app or device if his or her doctor said it might help. After all, these technologies allow patients to better track and manage their personal health, potentially reduce the number of visits to health care facilities, and provide a more comprehensive picture of health characteristics.

Research: The Foundation of an Evidence-Based Medical Practice

One solution to increase adoption may be providing more evidence. As a medical student, it has quickly become clear to me how important evidence-based medicine is to medical practice. Not only is research the foundation for physicians’ best practices and protocols, but it also helps patients make informed decisions and empowers them to better understand their diagnosis and treatment. But what does research look like in digital health?

The World Health Organization, in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative, has been working on a guide to conducting research and assessment in digital health. In addition to this guide, there are a number of other tools used by researchers in this space, including the MAPS (mHealth Assessment and Planning for Scale) Toolkit, a self-assessment tool that helps teams scale up mHealth innovations, and the Digital Health Atlas, a global web platform that curates digital health implementations to map, monitor and foster digital health innovation investments to meet government health goals. A search of these tools performed in one of the conference’s many workshops revealed that currently, the most prioritized interventions are targeted messaging and reminders, on-demand information services, electronic decision support, remote client to provider consultations and digital supply chain tracking/management.

For medical students interested in digital health, a number of institutions offer clinical informatics fellowships, including the University of Arizona, Boston Children’s Hospital, Case Western Reserve, Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco medical system.

Ultimately, the Connected Health Conference offered a glimpse into the possibilities created by digital health while providing key tools to help us create the health care future we want.