Digital Health

Digital Health: A Problem or Solution?

When was the last time you were out in public and you did not see the majority of people with a phone in their hands, scrolling, texting, snapping pictures, or simply looking at their phones every so often? Our world has become increasingly digitized and connected, and it’s hard to avoid. In reading this article right now, you are using technology to receive information in a digital form. Technology has opened the door to massive opportunities for connection, convenience, community, and advancement. In the past few years, several health information technology services — which aim to increase communication, understanding, and self-management of health information — have also become available. Some examples of HIT include:

  • Electronic health records
  • Personal health records
  • Electronic prescribing
  • Rapid information sharing between patients and doctors
  • Appointment scheduling
  • Lab records and results

HIT can be extremely beneficial for the doctor-patient relationship because health information technologies can serve as a convenient hub for medical information, resources, or appointment scheduling; however, using HIT requires the internet, which not every older adult has access to. Today, 25 percent of adults in America over the age of 65 do not use the internet. This is the largest group of the American demographic who choose not to adopt the internet, and while this percentage is slowly decreasing, a lack of internet usage in older adults could results in health inequities that leave older adults’ needs behind as technology continues to evolve. Thus, studies that examine HIT and ways to increase its accessibility and ease of use are necessary to better improve patient outcomes.

For example, a 2020 study aimed to uncover patient, caregiver, and provider attitudes about digital health platforms and ways to make their design more efficient for the future. This study focused on individuals aged 65 or younger with heart failure, the “social convoys” in their lives (friends, family, community members, and caregivers), and health care providers. By interviewing 81 different individuals, researchers found that many patients have negative attitudes about technology usage with a lack of willingness to accept the new technology, despite the convenience that could result from it. Further, the study showed that social convoys wanted to be more involved in caregiving, but they did not feel like they had the ability to do so. There was a disconnect between patients’ mindsets and the desires of their social convoys, in that patients did not want to burden their convoys by asking for help, whereas convoys expressed a desire to help and gain more information about the patient’s conditions.

In another study, users of the Kaiser Permanente My Health Manager were interviewed to understand their perspectives on the platform and its effectiveness. My Health Manager is an online portal where patients can email their doctor, view test results, schedule appointments, manage prescriptions, and more. The study revealed that participants on the portal found it to be quite useful, but minor aspects, such as font color, size, and website design, provided difficulties in utilizing the platform. Users also had issues with scheduling appointments online and thus continued to schedule their appointments by phone. The study also found that older adults are less likely to participate in digital technologies that they find confusing or hard to figure out. Thus, the study lends support to the notion that that health information technologies need to take into consideration the ease of use of their platforms in terms of design and user experience to promote more efficient health care.  

I get it — technology can seem daunting and sometimes hard to grasp. We have all had an absolutely blood-boiling technological meltdown that has left us wanting to throw our device across the room — or maybe that’s just me. Yet, when websites and apps are designed intuitively and with users’ experiences in mind, technology can often make life a little easier, especially in the health care space. The immediate goal of HIT is to provide patients with effective means of communication, records, and scheduling services to properly manage their health. In the long horizon, HIT intends to improve the quality of health care to prevent medical errors, reduce health care costs, and expand access to affordable health care, all while reducing the amount of paperwork and housekeeping for administrators and patients. If that long horizon goal can be met, patients could one day enjoy faster, more convenient health care at the tips of their fingers via smart devices.

However, HIT is a new development, just as the internet itself is new in the grand scheme of human history. There will be growing pains as researchers work out the details of function, accessibility, and the privacy and security of health information. For the moment, patients can visit the “Health IT Tools You Can Use” sidebar on this fact sheet from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology to learn how to incorporate HIT into their current health care plan.

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Grace Weintrob is a junior majoring in Communication Studies with a minor in Stage, Sports, and Film Production at CSU. She is currently working as the digital media intern for the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging.