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MHS’s four tips for patient-centered digital health

Image of Picture of Robert Ciulla with the words "Four Tips for Patient-Center Digital Health". Click to open a larger version of the image. Robert Ciulla, PhD, provides tips on how health care providers and patients can adjust to digital health (Photo by: DHA’s Connected Health).

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Digital health and the move to patient-centered care: both accelerated across the Military Health System throughout 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As MHS providers, we must include these two now-essential care delivery elements in our plans during COVID-19 and post-pandemic. Whatever the future has in store, the best way to face it is by creating a care system – both individuals and technology – that enables each patient to connect with their care anytime and anywhere, thereby improving overall health and military readiness.

The MHS is taking the lead at the enterprise level by expanding existing digital health systems and partnerships and rolling out new ones. We must understand where our patients are coming from, meet them where they are, and put them at the center of everything we do. We also must ensure that the technology, strategy, policies, and guidance we put in place support an effective, seamless partnership with each patient to get the most out of their care.

To build better patient-centered partnerships for digital health, here are four tips:

Be ready to combine multiple different digital health technology platforms

COVID-19 response has thrust many providers into a crash course in the massive variety of MHS digital health platforms: the electronic health record; virtual health that delivers real-time care via telephone or video; eHealth through web-based systems; mobile health apps; texting; email; and social media. Blended use cases may combine digital health platforms across treatment encounters: video conference + text messaging, email + internet-based learning modules, telephone + remote home surveillance via wearables, and so forth.

Be both a learner and a teacher

Because using health technologies in combinations will become the norm, more than ever we have the responsibility to thoroughly understand and trust digital health tools. As part of learning about digital health platforms, seek out digital health tools developed by trustworthy sources. For example, the Defense Health Agency offers a wide variety of free apps, websites, and podcasts grounded in clinical research and vetted to ensure quality and safety.

We also should view partnering with our patients as an essential part of effective care. However, we cannot automatically assume that patients are ready for or conversant with these technologies. Even if they are knowledgeable about the technology itself, they may not know how to apply it to their medical care.

Maintain open and respectful communication

While digital health has changed the medical landscape, the essential characteristics of health care remain the same whether that care is supported by technologies or not: a thorough evaluation, attention to patient engagement, and interventions that are evidenced-based.

Be aware if a patient has the misperception that using digital health technology means a greater focus on technology than on communication. Providers can discuss this topic directly, conveying that a seasoned clinician can attend to both the patient and the technology concurrently and when that is not possible, will set aside the technology to ensure active listening.

The skyrocketing popularity of digital health capabilities with providers and patients alike means that this multimodal melting pot of technologies will be foundational to health care delivery going forward. Providing the best care in this environment requires providers to be familiar with all platforms and thoroughly knowledgeable about the ones they use most often. This breadth of knowledge will augment providers' ability to combine platforms in ways tailored to the needs of each patient and quickly adapt to equipment or connectivity issues. Getting a head start on these skills will enable us and our patients to take best advantage of currently available solutions as well as those to come.

Open exchange of information

Finally, the distance involved in video and social media platforms may encourage a more open exchange than an office professional setting would bring. Make sure to monitor and maintain boundaries. You should also discuss informed consent when using health technology, as well as minimize privacy concerns by showing patients your office during virtual visits to demonstrate that no one else is present.

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