Women's College Research Institute

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How digital technology can transform health-care

June 2016

Digital technology can transform health-carePicture a future when frail seniors can live at home with constant access to personalized medical advice through linked devices and services that answer questions, schedule appointments and keeps loved ones informed.

Dr. Onil Bhattacharyya, a scientist at WCRI, says it’s achievable. He is part of a major project at the Commonwealth Fund in New York, where he is a Harkness Fellow, which is convening researchers, technology vendors, regulators, health care providers and investors to understand how to manage sensitive medical information and build a tool that is financially viable.

The vision is a digital health advisor that could pull information from sources like medical records, prescriptions, scientific evidence and local services, while incorporating patient preferences in decision support. With devices such as a wrist band and a smart refrigerator, the app could monitor vitals and make sure a patient is eating enough. For the frail elderly, the control could mean the difference between long-term care and living at home.

Why doesn’t this already exist? Dr. Bhattacharyya says the challenge is more human than technological. To be sure, there are technical challenges for building a tool that is easy to use, private and secure. But he says most health systems have been designed for providers, not patients. “The fact that it hasn’t been developed even though it’s technically feasible is a gap between the people who develop these things and the people who might use them,” he says.

Dr. Bhattacharyya is exploring the needs of the patients who would benefit most, the frail elderly, people with multiple chronic conditions, and their caregivers. “This is a solution for anyone, but the people with the most to gain are the people who are the most ill,” he says. Those patients also generate most of the costs to the health system, making it economically beneficial to improve their care in this way.

Dr. Bhattacharyya, the Frigon-Blau Chair in Family Medicine Research at Women's College Hospital, will continue this research when he returns to WCRI in August, both as an advisor to the Commonwealth Fund’s Breakthrough Opportunities Portfolio and by designing follow-on studies with colleagues here to unpack the technical, cultural, organizational, financial and regulatory challenges to deploying technology that puts health-care decisions in patients’ hands.

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