Digital health gets two new reality checks (thank God)

Two new studies — one in a peer-reviewed journal, one from a consulting firm — are casting some skepticism on the world of digital health. In an often-overhyped sector, a little skepticism is a good thing. As MedCity News reported, two-thirds of “tech-savvy” seniors in the U.S. and nine other countries surveyed by Accenture would […]

Two new studies — one in a peer-reviewed journal, one from a consulting firm — are casting some skepticism on the world of digital health. In an often-overhyped sector, a little skepticism is a good thing.

As MedCity News reported, two-thirds of “tech-savvy” seniors in the U.S. and nine other countries surveyed by Accenture would like to be able to manage their health with technology. Still, nearly an equal number said that current technology is inadequate.

I always take surveys like this with a grain of salt because the questions and conclusions are so nonspecifically optimistic, such as, “seniors want digital health.” But this one actually shows skepticism among the survey pool that the technology would work as advertised and that doctors would be welcoming of the data.

Kudos to Accenture for parsing out the results according to comfort level with digital health and telehealth. Among those who value technology, according to the survey, 75 percent track their weight electronically, compared to 43 percent of those who do not place a high value on technology for managing health. When it comes to actively managing their cholesterol levels, the split was 50 percent for those who like tech and 31 percent for those who do not.

While two-thirds of those surveyed named self-care technology for independent health management as an application they are interested in, just 25 percent said management of electronic health records was important. This suggests that the Meaningful Use-related push for patient engagement via portals and personal health records may be misguided, or at least not ready for the spotlight.

Meanwhile, researchers in Germany threw more cold water on the notion that seniors want mobile apps to manage their health.

A paper published by Medicine 2.0, an affiliate of the online Journal of Medical Internet Research, found something that I long suspected: older patients with chronic diseases aren’t interested in what young, supposedly hip app developers foist on them. (I’ve also long suspected that developers have jumped into healthcare mostly because they see dollar signs, or, in this case, euro signs, without understanding the market.)

The researchers gave two apps to each of 32 diabetes patients, with a mean age of 69. Prior to the study, just two of the patients, or 6 percent, had used a diabetes-related app. Only 25 percent owned smartphones and less than half of the group knew how to use apps.

After trying the two apps, a whopping 90 percent reported that functionality was “nonintuitive,” while 66 percent said the same about understanding the navigation menu or labeling. Nearly half said font sizes and graphics were too small and a similar number had trouble finding and pressing the right buttons on the touch screen.

Only eight participants specified their reasons for being against apps, but of that small group, half did not see any additional benefits in using the apps to care for their diabetes.

Clearly, app developers have a lot to learn about the market for chronic disease management and a long way to go in optimizing their products for the real end users.

[Photo from Flickr user Cory Doctorow]

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