The use of technology in healthcare has increased dramatically in the past few years. Aside from advancing the precision and quality of medicine physicians can provide, technology can empower patients to care for their own health.
Perhaps the most popular use of technology today is the development of phone apps that allow patients to learn about their health, monitor their symptoms, treat some conditions, and so forth.
Some medical conditions are, of course, ‘better suited’ to this. For example, patients have been using apps for diabetes for years. App functionalities range from allowing patients to sync their glucometers with their apps to learn about healthy lifestyle choices or track their intake.
Others include hypnotherapy for health conditions such as IBS. The Nerva app allows patients to follow a six-week hypnotherapy program, track their symptoms, and connect this data to their healthcare provider.
Other apps help patients monitor their blood pressure, track their mood, journal their emotions, time their ovulation, and more. Apps that help patients with their health conditions are certainly a popular choice because they enable them to take control of their healthcare.
However, before sending a patient off with a recommendation to use an app for their health, physicians must know how to counsel their patients about using the app. By taking the time to educate patients about the app, how to use it, its benefits, and risks, you are increasing the likelihood that they will benefit from it.
This is not exclusive to apps - there is evidence that highlights the importance of physicians educating patients about resources and how to use them to optimize their health.
Educating your patients
While some aspects of app use can seem straightforward, it is always best to assume the patient has little or no previous experience. Here are some useful talking points:
Where can they download the app? Is it available for all or only certain types of devices (App Store for Apple, Google for Androids)
Is it free? Is there a free trial available, without obligation? Does the provider have a referral code that might give patients a discount?
What does the app provide? Is it an app that strictly provides education in the form of written content? Are there any videos or pictures to facilitate learning?
Does the app teach specific coping or management skills for the condition, such as meditation or mindfulness? Are there audio files in the app that help the patient develop them?
Is the app based on a certain methodology? Is there medical evidence to support the app's usage in this health condition? If so, how does this compare to other treatments or methods?
Does the app require the patient to use it daily or weekly? How long does the app need to be used to see improvement? Do patients have an option to track their symptoms, relevant information or trends, feelings?
How easy is the app to navigate? Do patients need to be ‘savvy’ to use it? Does it save progress? Can information be shared with a physician, and if so, how?
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What is the outcome of having the patient use the app? Is it to learn about their condition or to track their symptoms? Does the app have a method to help patients see their progress (check-ins, graphing data of symptoms)?
When counseling patients about the expectations and benefits of the app, it is almost critical to advise them that all patients respond differently to treatments and programs. This particular app and methodology might be effective for them, or it might not be. The important counseling point here is to ensure patients understand that the app on its own will not ‘cure’ the patient; it is one tool in their toolbox towards health. And a significant component of success is ensuring that the patient uses the app as intended to maximize its benefit.
This list is not exhaustive, but it does highlight some of the key considerations physicians should share with patients when recommending an app. This list can also be shared with patients to help them decide whether or not an app is ‘reputable’ or will be beneficial to them.
By educating patients about the app using the hints above, physicians can help patients understand more about why or how using the app will be important. Taking the time to review the topics above will increase the patient’s understanding of the app and help them make informed decisions about their treatment regimes.
Furthermore, explaining these points to patients can help address some of their questions and concerns about using the app, which can motivate them to begin using it.
Spending a few extra minutes with patients and engaging them in their healthcare can go a long way - and in this case, simply recommending a health application and reviewing a few relevant points about it can empower patients to take more control over their health. This is, of course, a key component of patient-centered healthcare: helping patients work towards better health by working together with their healthcare providers.
About Dr Marina Abdel Malak
Dr Marina Abdel Malak is a family physician in Mississauga, Canada. She has a passion for medical education, patient empowerment, and increasing awareness about the relationship between mental, emotional, and physical health. Her research interests include strategies to support physician wellness, patient self-management, and optimizing physician education.
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