By Akeya Dickson
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Sometimes you can’t make it to the doctor. You don’t have a way to get there, you’re bedridden, or you may have simply forgotten. Cueing up a Skype session with your physician might be the most efficacious solution to getting immediate care, avoiding a missed appointment (and $40 co-pay), and to skipping the marathon waiting room sessions and flipping through out dated issuemagazines.
A healthcare system anchored in technology could eventually become the norm if strict privacy regulations outlined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act shift are maintained, according some cutting-edge health experts. Some hospital administrators and physicians are eager to embrace new technology and new possibilities. But they have professional limits, restrictions on disseminating health records and the need to protect personal privacy.
The ideas and possibilities were batted around – and sometimes batted down – during the day-long symposium last week on U.S. Health Care at Howard University. A technology session included a presentation and round-table discussion that posited new media solutions for assisting communities of color in managing their healthcare.
“The advantage that these communities have is the broad adoption of technology by minorities. It’s largely an untold story,” said Howard Wolley, senior vice president of Strategic Alliance and Wireless Policy for Verizon Communications. “We’re partnering with all of the key stakeholders to work through the regulatory framework and the cultural barriers.”
And there is no shortage of barriers, including the need to protect privacy.
Beyond privacy issues, the questions that the healthcare industry and patients alike grapple with are just how far should the engagement go? Does it stop at text message notifications reminding patients of upcoming appointments? Or is an in-depth conversation about an ailment yet-to-be-chartered terrain?
“If we start to communicate with people through these technologies it will create a dialogue,” said Maisha Walker, a technology columnist for Inc. magazine and founder and president of Message Medium. “A lot of people are not that involved in their healthcare. This will start conversations, even if it’s from a point of irritation.”
Hospital administrators, policymakers, doctors and telecommunication companies are trying to figure out how they can integrate technology into healthcare to improve services. The difference between healthcare companies and most other companies is that unlike some companies that focus on pushing product to consumers, their ultimate success may depend on how well they can persuade patients to become more involved their healthcare.
Lisa Fitzpatrick, a professor at the Howard University College of Medicine, and Kerry–Ann Hamilton, director of Strategic Marketing and Communications at Howard University, offered a glimpse into how technology can be the conduit to providing the best care. They shared preliminary results from a pilot study in Kenya that evaluated cell phone intervention in healthcare.
“In the case of Africa where they are leaps ahead of the United States, we’re borrowing from successes there and looking at how they can help us,” Hamilton said.
Though the final results won’t be released until June, Fitzpatrick said that they are already seeing fewer missed appointments, adherence to medication and client acceptability since patients have integrated health care with their cell phones.
Initial reaction to exploiting technology for medical purposes has been enthusiastic.
“The practices that have implemented this type of care have reported positive results,” said Dr. Mark S. Johnson, dean of Howard University’s College of Medicine. “Patients feel empowered and don’t have to leave their homes to go to the doctor’s office.”
Punctuated by easier coordination between healthcare providers, less paperwork and improved reports on quality of care, the number of physicians using health information technology has more than doubled from 17 percent to 34 percent since 2008, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
While some laud the benefits of a tech and healthcare mix, others urge caution.
“There’s no reticence from us to embrace technology, but the same way that we test a new drug, we have to do the same with this,” Johnson explained. “Sometimes we assume that technology is better, but if we don’t prove that, then we don’t know.”
No one knows the extent technology will be adopted.
“Each person will have to decide with his or her physician the extent of that interaction,” said Larry Warren, chief executive officer of Howard University Hospital. “For some period of time, we’re going to be living in two worlds: one of high technology and one where we hope we can call and someone will pick up the phone.”