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What is digital health, and why should you care? (Part 2 of 2)

This post is the second half of an introductory Digital Health 101 for consumers, patients, and care partners. Part 1 explains what digital health is, and why it's critically important right now. This second part shares specific ways you can use digital health to make your health—and your life—better.

Part 2: How You Can Use Digital Health in Your Life

Who doesn't want to make managing their health a little easier? Managing a variety of health and healthcare challenges and trying to stick to a healthy lifestyle is a lifelong journey, and it can be a hard one.

It's even tougher if you’re the informal “Chief Health Officer'' for your family, the one who tends to take care of everyone else. Good news: technology can help. There are many ways in which digital health can make your life easier and improve health and healthcare for you and the people you care about.

Here are some examples:

Get useful health information “just in time”.

  • Research a health symptom, treatment, or concern at the moment at which you need it. Even pre-pandemic 89% of Americans searched Google before turning to their doctors about a particular health issue. Government-run and private health sites for consumers, plus peer-reviewed journals geared toward professionals can also be valuable and trustworthy resources.

  • Tap into a network of peers with similar health interests, regardless of their location, through social media and a wide variety of private digital communities.

Access healthcare services more conveniently.

  • Consult or get treatment from a clinician at a distance via telemedicine, saving time and travel, especially if you live far from a center of excellence in your condition or disease. Telemedicine also minimizes your risk of exposure to COVID-19 or other contagious conditions.

  • Identify potential health issues and take action before they become serious via remote patient monitoring, which lets you and your care team monitor your health together throughout the course of daily life.

  • Stay informed, make sure all of your doctors are in sync, and spot and address errors in your medical records that could harm you via patient portals and personal health records, some of which also let you see the notes your doctor has written about you.

Estimate (and control) healthcare costs.

  • Shop around and compare prices for healthcare services, particularly as virtual healthcare opens up new treatment opportunities that aren’t location dependent.

  • Find health insurance and know what your insurance covers before you receive a service.

  • Potentially avoid unnecessary interventions and healthcare costs through research and getting a second opinion.

Manage a chronic condition more easily.

  • Receive ongoing virtual care and support from providers that use telehealth (including both telemedicine and remote patient monitoring) to monitor and coach patients at a distance using wearable sensors and other digital devices.

  • Get advice, practical information, and emotional support from peers—people like you—in online communities and platforms.

Get support as a caregiver or care partner.

  • Identify resources including local services to help you better manage care for someone else, whether it’s your partner, parent, child, or friend.

  • Rely on information from digital monitors, sensors and devices to help you stay in the loop about what’s happening when you are at a physical distance from the person you’re caring for.

Increase your wellness and reduce risk of illness.

Solve problems and make your voice heard.

  • Find and join a healthcare advocacy organization online.

  • Join a Twitter chat or Facebook group on a topic you care about.

  • Attend a healthcare conference to learn and share your experience. Many are now virtual.

  • Sign a petition, raise money, or start a campaign related to health.

  • Crowd-source a solution to a problem you’ve experienced or identified.

  • Help make healthcare better by participating in research or sharing your expertise with members of the healthcare industry at every level.

Can you afford not to use digital health?

Digital health brings many benefits, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t downsides. Digital health represents a collection of tools that can be used very well, or very poorly. On the negative side, digital health can cause problems, like putting the privacy of health information at risk, widening racial or ethnic disparities in health, or creating unintended medical errors.

These risks are likely heightened by the fact that digital health tools exist in the context of the healthcare system, which has many flaws in addition to its strengths. If you do nothing to influence the way digital health is used, it could make healthcare worse. By the same token, using and shaping the ways in which digital health is used represents a great opportunity for positive change at scale.

Regardless of your appetite for involvement at the systemic level as an advocate or vocal patient or customer, I believe it’s in your interest as a consumer or patient to use digital health for your own benefit and the health of the people you care about. The fact is, more engaged patients have better health outcomes. That is partly because patients and consumers are able to help avoid medical errors and help to coordinate care in a fragmented health system, and partly because we all play such a huge role in our own healing.

In addition, while some experts may know more about a particular type of health condition, you are the expert in you. Only you know how you feel, what’s normal for your body, and what your health priorities are in the context of your life.

Your role in managing your own health is especially important since chronic conditions, including heart disease and cancer, are the highest causes of mortality in the US and increasingly impact the quality of our lives. You have tremendous potential to help reduce your health risks and manage some of the most dangerous conditions, and now you have the tools to do it more easily.

You, as a patient, consumer, or care partner have skin in the game of digital health, quite literally. I hope you’ll leverage it to flex your power and achieve your best health and life.

This list of ways to use digital health in your own life above isn't comprehensive, but I tried to cover the main ones in my experience. Are there other ways you've used digital health that you think should be included?

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When we care for ourselves and others, the greater world around us benefits.

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