Expanding the Healthy Patient – Doctor Relationship

Patient Doctor Relationship
It seems like this topic keeps coming up in my online and social media reading. Basically, the discussion usually centers around the role the patient plays in healthcare. Many people like to discuss what has been called the ePatient. I instead want to talk about the motivations of patients and their ability to influence the healthcare system.

Patients in healthcare are unlike “customers” in many other industries. I can’t think of a single patient that wants to go and see a doctor. Ok, maybe they like the doctor and they want to get whatever’s ailing them fixed, but to a person I’m sure we’d say that going to the doctor is the last place we want to be. It’s not like going shopping for a new pair of shoes. There’s nothing you get to take home from the doctor. Well, at least nothing that you really want to take home.

Plus, healthcare is an interesting thing, because often it’s not clear if you should go to the doctor or not. If my A/C is broken, then it’s quite clear that I need to call an A/C repairman. Seeing a doctor is quite different since it’s a fine line between when you need to go and see the doctor versus when your body will heal on its own. I think we’ve all hated the doctor visit where they check you out and basically say there’s nothing they can do for you. Well, other than send you the bill for your visit. I guess that’s the cost of the peace of mind that you get from the visit (I know I’ve done that with my kids a few times).

Please don’t take this as me knocking doctors or the healthcare profession. They provide an absolutely essential and critical role in our lives. Without great doctors many of us wouldn’t be here today. My point in this post is that the patient doctor relationship is quite different than the customer business relationship that we’re use to seeing.

Online Patient Portals
Take for example the online patient portal. Many people love to go on Amazon.com (or insert your preferred shopping site) and browse through all the various things they could buy. We all know people who spend hours shopping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say that they wanted to spend hours browsing through their patient portal. You know, someone who just couldn’t wait to see what great healthcare services their doctor could provide them.

The only partial exception to the above reasoning is possibly the chronic patient. If I’m a diabetic patient, then I am going to have an ongoing dialogue with my care provider and the services they provide. I’m going to be interested in monitoring and tracking my care in collaboration with the treatments that my doctor provides.

Is there a reason why we don’t want this kind of interaction for our general healthcare?

Regular Online Interaction with Doctors
Why shouldn’t I go online on a regular basis so that my doctor can assist me in total wellness even when I’m a healthy patient? The difference here of course lies in doctors treating symptoms and illness as opposed to a very different form of care: wellness. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve seen any doctors who treat healthy patients. Sure, some doctors do provide some pro-active wellness information during a sick visit to the doctor. Regular physicals are the closest we come to doctors treating healthy patients, but how many health people get those? It feels counter intuitive that we would go and see a doctor when we’re healthy or appear to be healthy. However, maybe that’s the shift our healthcare system needs.

Reimbursement Model Challenge
One real challenge with what I just described is the reimbursement model we have in healthcare. We’ve incentivized treatment of sickness and illness. We haven’t (yet?) incentivized treatment of healthy patients and promotion of wellness. This sounds a bit like the ACO discussion that’s become so popular these days. I’ll be interested to see how these incentives play out. Word on the street is the train has left the building and reimbursement is going to be tied to healthcare outcomes in the future.

Healthy Patient Motivation
Unfortunately, another major challenge I see is that healthy patients aren’t really motivated by wellness initiatives. I’m sure that there are people that understand this phenomenon a lot better than I. Although, I think it’s abundantly illustrated when you talk to someone who’s getting older and starting to lose their health.

It seems particularly poignant for highly successful people that start to get older. How many times have we heard during Oprah or a Barbara Walters interview someone talk about being willing to give up all their riches and fame to just have their health (and they often throw family in there too)? All the time! The problem is that it takes old age or some other health incident for people to make healthy living and wellness an important part of their life. Which begs the question of whether even a change in the reimbursement model for healthcare will get unmotivated people to visit their doctors and be “treated” even when they’re a healthy patient.

Gamification of Healthcare
One idea that I find incredibly intriguing is the idea of gamification of healthcare and wellness. The basic concept behind gamification is to create incentives for people to do the behaviors you want them to do. I believe Foursquare was one of the first applications to do this. They would give you electronic badges and crown you as mayor as you did certain things on their mobile app. It was (and still is) amazing to see what people will do for a little electronic badge and the electronic title of mayor (Turns out this works in the offline world as well. There’s a reason boy scouts give out badges, beads and pins.). The question is how can we apply rewards systems to incentivize healthy behavior and wellness?

To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone crack the gamification code in healthcare. Although, I think the concept is just beginning. I predict in the next couple years that we’re going to see some amazing mobile and web applications that really drastically impact our motivation to healthy living.

The closest I’ve seen so far has been something like the Nike+ device and website. It’s a simple device that tracks your running habits either in a watch, iPod or even in your shoe. Then, that device uploads your running data to a website where you can create and track your running progress. It also provides a social experience, but that’s a topic for another day.

I actually find these tracking device/website combinations (see the FitBit and DigiFit as other examples) to be some of the most interesting things happening when it comes to pro active treating of healthy patients. A while back I predicted a whole plethora of medical tracking devices are going to hit the market. This is happening and will continue for many years to come. I heard one guy interviewed who talked about one day (many years from now) having little mini processors attached to every nerve or blood cell in our body. Ok, that’s kind of creepy to think about, but personal monitoring of our body is a burgeoning field in healthcare.

Crunching All the Personal Healthcare Device Data
The question once we’re monitoring all of these various vital signs and health information is what are we going to do with that information. Is it reasonable to think that we’ll be able to use computers to crunch through all the data and provide a self service analysis of all the data collected? Yes, Watson did some amazing things on Jeopardy, but I think we’re far away from the day when this type of self service crunching of all the medical data we collect will be possible.

Yes, that means we’re still going to need doctors and other healthcare professionals who help us analyze the data that we’re collecting and dealing with the health issues that are related to that data. In fact, I predict a whole new breed of doctor will come together that will be specialized at analyzing this data and treating even the healthy patients.

Future Healthy Patient Doctor Relationship
This all comes full circle when you go back to the start of this discussion: the doctor patient relationship. How are doctors going to see all this health information we’re collecting? Where are we going to have these healthy patient interactions with doctors? I predict that it will be through patient portals that are connected to a physician’s EHR.

I and every blogger I’ve ever known has been a stats junkie. We’re addicted to checking our stats. There’s no reason we wouldn’t be just as addicted to checking our health stats on a patient portal. The problem is that the patient portals I’ve seen aren’t there yet. Plus, most doctors aren’t yet ready for this type of healthy patient interaction around such a large set of data. Although, I predict we’ll get there and it will change the doctor patient relationship forever.