The topics in this series were developed by New Scientist in conjunction with Philips, which paid for them to be produced
A hacking cough; a high temperature; a swollen knee. At one time, such symptoms would have sent you dashing – or limping – to your GP. Today, of course, the internet is often the first port of call.
As the amount of health information has exploded online, people are embracing the opportunity to play medical sleuth. For some, it’s a chance to indulge their inner “cyberchondriac”. For others, new digital devices offer the chance to monitor their health more closely than ever before. However it manifests, access to information has put more power into people’s hands.
But medical professionals, pressed for time and resources, can’t always engage with their patients in this way, particularly if the deluge of information is less than accurate. Could technology help make life easier for doctors, while at the same time giving patients the chance to become effective collaborators in their own care?
“Physicians are often swamped and so make diagnoses using whatever context is given to them”
There’s no question that British people are eager to learn more about their well-being: one in 20 Google searches is related to health, and the NHS’s health information website, NHS Choices, regularly receives over 11 million visits a week.
A large number of people are already collecting their own data. According to the 2015 Picture of Health Report from Philips, almost one in 10 people in the UK, including one in five 18 to 24-year-olds, have used wearable devices, smartphones and apps to track their weight, sleep patterns and physical activity, among other things.
These people are often eager to share their data with their doctors: 39 per cent of people tracking their health with a digital device say they show that information to their healthcare provider, according to the Picture of Health Report. And three in four British healthcare professionals say that half of their patients bring in information about their symptoms.
But what does this mean for doctors? Naturally, there are concerns about misleading information. Web-based “symptom checkers”, which many people use to determine their condition for themselves, listed the correct diagnosis first only one-third of the time, according to research by Harvard Medical School, published in July 2015 in the BMJ.
When it comes to monitoring personal health data, the question is whether the data captured is actually relevant. “The real problem is that people are wasting their time on the web in a lot of cases,” says GP Andrew Farmer, who is also a specialist in diabetes and telemedicine at the University of Oxford. “It’s not going to contribute to any changes in their healthcare management.”
Picture of health
That problem is compounded by worries about accuracy. A February 2015 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, found that wearable devices are no better at counting steps than smartphones.
As a result, two in five healthcare providers worry that in turning to the internet for medical treatment patients are creating, rather than solving, problems. Even if patients feel in control of their health, doctors aren’t assured: only 19 per cent believe patients are capable of staying on top of their own well-being, according to the Picture of Health Report.
“The real problem is that people are wasting their time on the web in a lot of cases”
Meanwhile, doctors are dealing with their own challenges during each consultation. Their patients’ health records may be scattered across several different care providers, leaving them with inadequate information to go on. The NHS has set out to create a centralised healthcare record system by 2018, but for the moment it remains hit-and-miss. “Without access to a record, there are going to be challenges in identifying and providing the right services, unless the doctor knows the patient’s history,” says Karen Taylor, a digital health expert at Deloitte UK. Only 10 per cent of British doctors think patient information is shared effectively across the system, and 75 per cent think that improved data sharing would improve health outcomes, according to the Picture of Health report.
Might there be an easier way? Philips is exploring a solution by combining medical-grade digital monitoring technology with an online platform on which patients can easily share their data with their doctor. The cloud-based system, called the Philips HealthSuite Digital Platform, brings together all of a patient’s medical data, including information from a network of connected digital devices such as weighing scales, blood glucose sensors and blood-pressure monitors.
With all of a patient’s data stored securely and privately in one place, the logic goes, it will be easier for healthcare providers to coordinate care. “If you talk to physicians, they have to track down information to get the context of why they’re seeing this patient,” says John Huffman, CTO at Philips in San Francisco. “In a lot of cases, they’re just too swamped, so they make the diagnosis based on whatever context is given to them.”
Part of that context would come from the personal digital devices that patients can use to monitor themselves. In addition to giving the clinician a medical-grade view of the patient’s vital signs over time, the HealthSuite Digital Platform devices could provide a way for patients to understand their own health and well-being. Research suggests that such remote digital-monitoring systems can help engage patients in effective self-management. Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that patients with a chronic condition enrolled in a remote-monitoring programme felt more reassured, as well as more knowledgeable, about the ups and downs of their symptoms. “It gives people a bit more control,” says Farmer.
Doctors would welcome a more efficient system. Over half of medical professionals are eager for technologies that harness patient data to improve outcomes and coordinate care, according to the Picture of Health Report. “Such technology is not taking the place of healthcare professionals,” says Taylor. “It’s actually releasing them from the more bureaucratic aspects of their jobs, allowing them to better fulfill their important role.”
In the meantime, patients will no doubt keep searching for medical information, and doctors will continue to guide, counsel and coach them to better health. If digital technology is part of that ongoing collaboration, so much the better, says Stanton Newman, dean of the School of Health Sciences at City University London. “If there was clear leadership from the top, and clear fiscal incentives to do it, I think we could really have a game-changer in terms of the delivery of healthcare.”
(Image: Hero Images/Plainpicture, LWA/Dann Tardif/Getty)
This story is part of a series exploring the way innovation is improving health. For more, visit
This article appeared in print under the headline “Doctor, meet my data”
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