A critical enabler of a more consumer-centric health system is ready for the mainstream.
The key to more efficient and connected care
Digital health’s moment has arrived. A confluence of trends has resulted in a growing number of digital health tools — and that was all before the pandemic catalyzed the need for more virtual care options. These trends include increased computing power, consumer adoption of mobile technology, changing expectations about convenience and the growing network of internet-connected devices.
With digital health increasingly becoming part of health care conversations, it’s important to understand what the term means and how it can improve our health system’s performance.
What is digital health?
At Optum, we view digital health broadly as the ecosystem of technologies, services and interactions that allow individuals to engage with the health system in a digitally enabled, convenient way.
People often use the terms digital health, telehealth and telemedicine interchangeably, but their meanings are different. Telemedicine and telehealth both fit within the digital health ecosystem.
- Telemedicine specifically refers to a direct interaction between patients and providers, whether that’s over the phone or through a video conference. Telemedicine visits rose sharply in 2020: one U.S. health care organization reported a more than 70% rise in outpatient phone and video visits during the early weeks of COVID-19.
- Telehealth is a bit broader. Like telemedicine, telehealth is a remote delivery of a service. But telehealth isn’t limited to patient-clinician interactions. Digital wellness apps that track your movement or a wearable device that monitors your glucose level would qualify as telehealth technologies.
- Digital health encompasses every type of digitally enabled health care experience. That includes telemedicine and telehealth, but also extends further into virtual tools such as patient portals, provider searches, scheduling apps and cost estimators.
Applications of digital health technology
Digital health tools are useful across nearly all health care needs. Here are a few that stand out:
- Mental and behavioral health — Mobile apps like Sanvello and virtual therapy programs like those provided by AbleTo can provide therapy for mental health support. Teletherapy may even offer some advantages over traditional in-person care. For example, people concerned with any stigma related to mental health care may feel more comfortable opening up from the confines of their own home.
- Virtual care — Even before the pandemic, the growing sophistication of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that capture health data was already opening up new opportunities to shift care out of the hospital to more cost-effective places, including the home. The demand for these devices (and services to manage them and the data they collect) will continue to grow. Vivify Health, for example, offers a platform that lets providers monitor patients remotely and intervene when necessary.
- Consumer convenience — An organization’s digital front door is an integrated, mobile-friendly platform that serves as a gateway to services. Consumers can view their clinical and claim information and access tools like online schedulers or cost estimators. It can also help guide consumers to the best services for the lowest cost.
Underlying every digital health tool is a data, analytics and information technology (IT) infrastructure. This infrastructure can include health information exchanges (HIEs), EHR systems, cloud data storage, cybersecurity and privacy systems, and more.
Digital health solutions need to interact with these systems in a secure way and safeguard the sensitive data they contain.
How will digital tools shape the future of health care?
- Drive personalization — New data streams associated with digital health tools can feed into analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) models, allowing for greater customization of services and a better understanding of personal health needs.
- Extend patient reach and access — Remote patient-provider communication tools and connected devices will ensure timely and convenient access to care by removing the need to physically travel to an office for many health needs.
- Enhance patient and provider experiences — From web and app-based symptom checkers and triage tools to automated self-scheduling to more efficient data exchange, digital health technologies can create a seamless experience, cutting down consumer frustration and clinician burnout.
- Improve care quality — Wearables, digital therapeutics and remote patient monitoring (RPM) devices can continually track an individual’s health and wellbeing. Those data can trigger behavioral nudges to help individuals better manage their health or allow caregivers to adjust treatment plans accordingly.
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