Health professionals gathered in San Diego this week for the annual Health Unbound Conference to discuss the latest array of promising devices for making patients’ lives better — self-monitoring devices, home telehealth, social media and other e-health tools and advances.
But here’s the thing, said one speaker at the conference: There are so many useful devices and applications being developed to help patients achieve better health and longer lives, but getting those patients to use that technology can be a huge challenge.
“In general, health is a very intangible outcome,” Elizabeth Boehm of Forrester Research said, adding, “What does it mean to be slightly healthier? You’re talking about adding years to the end of my life, but the stuff that’s unhealthy has a shorter-term payoff. It usually tastes good, feels good, supplies immediate pleasure. It’s hard to get people to engage and use those long-term tools that make their health better.”
For instance, Boehm said, there have been great strides made in self-monitoring devices, where patients can keep track of blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels and weight loss or gain.
“When these tools were first designed, they were initially geared to the consumer market because they make monitoring so much easier. It seemed like a slam-dunk, that people would snap them up. But we found that people didn’t really want to use them. They don’t get enough of a reward from them. In fact, these tools remind you that you’re sick,” Boehm said.
Now, the main market for self-monitoring devices is home health workers since the devices make their job easier, she said. But the real potential lies in patient adoption of such devices. If someone with diabetes monitored blood sugar levels in real time and could instantly track and correct those levels, that person would have a better and longer life.
Unfortunately, Boehm said, that’s not enough of an incentive.Â
“We have to think outside of, ‘Here’s a solution,'” she said. “We need to come up with, ‘Here’s a solution that people are going to actually gravitate to.'”
People need rewards — financial, social or entertainment-based rewards, according to Boehm.
You need to pay people to take a health risk appraisal, for instance, which is a method of compliance being used by some companies now. Or you need to package health monitoring devices as part of a game, like an iPhone application, or include it in a social networking program for seniors, she said. Set up their e-mail or Facebook or other social-networking functions to include self-monitoring tools so that those seniors’ vital signs get recorded every time they use e-mail or receive photos over the Internet, Boehm said,
The idea is that you have to give added value to pursuing better health, Boehm said.
“Look, advertisers are tricking you to put bad things in your body all the time,” she said. “Why are we afraid to apply these tactics in health care? It’s kind of health care snobbery, I think. Most people in the medical community are sort of earnest, and that’s not a bad thing. But when you’re targeting the mainstream, you have to take it off the pedestal.”
So for example, she said, employers could go a step beyond paying their employees to take a health-risk assessment by making better health a competition.
“You and this group of another hundred employees are in health state X,” she said. “There needs to be a competition to get you to X-plus-one, with financial rewards and social rewards. It’s exciting to win that game.”
Health care insurers are motivated to run that kind of program because raising health means lowering cost of care.
“But the employer has two kinds of skin in the game,” Boehm said, adding, “Reducing payment, yes, but improving health also means improving productivity, as well, and having fewer sick days.”
The conference itself brought together patient-centered technology-based innovation, according to event co-chair Jay Srini, chief strategist at SCS Ventures in Pittsburgh.
“Health has to follow the patient, rather than the patient following health,” she said, adding, “We’re looking at the ability to provide health prevention, in a consumer-focused way, in the most convenient, cost-effective, safe way.”
That means using all kinds of technology from social media to robotics to improve care by enabling patients to help themselves attain better health, she said.
“Medicine is not just about hospital technology, but how to provide the best care to the patient, putting the patients in the middle of care and revolving all these things around them,” Srini said.
And to do all of that, Boehm said, you need to aggressively make patients want to take care of themselves.
“Different people require different approaches,” Boehm said. “Advertisers put a different ad in Seventeen magazine than they do in Better Homes & Gardens, and we need to do the same thing in medicine.
“We need to make the experience objectively positive,” Boehm said, “So everyone will find it motivating. Because health, by itself, isn’t motivating.”