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How healthcare can fix patient engagement

Brian Eastwood | June 18, 2014
The healthcare industry frequently discusses how to use technology to improve patient engagement, but it's just one step in a complex process that, done right, contributes to the much more formative process of patient empowerment.

Training should also discuss how to communicate with patients young and old. When physicians embrace email, Goren says, it shows patients that they can talk to doctors as easily as they talk to family and friends. (Outside forces may stand in the way here, though, as many current reimbursement models don't cover secure messaging.)

'Social Physics' As Patient Engagement Tool?

For the patients ready and willing to go far beyond email, the answer for reforming patient engagement may well involve social physics.

Most of what we learn comes from small things or huge things, says Alex "Sandy" Pentland, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the Center for Future Health. Small things don't represent the way people live, he said at the recent MIT Information and Communication Technologies Conference, and huge things don't get specific enough - the Framingham Heart Study lasted 30 years, for example, but only gathered measurements once a month.

That's why Pentland studies ways to gather more frequent measurements, to obtain a "very rich picture on how a community lives, something we've never seen before," which Pentland details in his latest book.

Citing economist Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, Pentland points out that 95 percent of human thought is "fast," habitual and little different from that of other mammals. As it turns out, there's truth to the maxim that old habits die hard - doing so requires changing the pattern of social learning.

Social physics comes into play, Pentland says, when someone else benefits from your good habits, and vice versa. It turns out that inspiring someone else to choose an apple instead of a doughnut, as you've done, has a greater overall benefit that simply receiving a benefit yourself. (That's why marketers want to know what your connections and influencers are doing, Pentland points out.)

Spread far and wide, such good behavior, as demonstrated by and reflected in all the data collected by sensors and voluntarily shared by patients, can in fact influence people to change those well-ingrained habits. Pentland's research has found that patients are more willing to share deeply personal information that you might expect - provided it's shared securely and anonymously, with privacy policies made explicit and users able to opt out at any time.

Road From Patient Engagement to Empowerment a Bumpy One

Data from your medical devices, emails from your doctors and plaudits from your social network will engage patients in improving your health. But how do you move beyond engagement?

For starters, the Health IT Summit panelists said, physicians and clinicians need to know how portals work, from the patient's point of view. Catholic Health Partners gives providers a "sandbox" so they log into the portal as patients, Rush says. Northwestern Memorial Hospital, meanwhile, instructs providers themselves (as opposed to administrative staff) to discuss with patients the portal's benefits and functionality, says Dr. Mita Goel, an internist there and professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Sixty percent of patients who talk to their physician about a portal sign up for it, Goel says.


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