Is technology good for healthcare?

Photo cred: SecurEdge Blog

Photo cred: SecurEdge Blog

Last week I had blood testing done through my local clinic.  As some of our regular readers may know, I live in London, England where we have a great public health care system called the National Health Service (NHS).  I booked an appointment day of, showed up, and had my blood drawn.  Upon leaving, I expected them to tell me that my GP would be in touch with results.  Nope.  They informed me that I would receive results by text message within 7-10 days.  Hmm, ok, that sounds easy.

I completely forgot about it until yesterday, when my iPhone dinged with the following message, all in caps lock:




I laughed.  First of all, that was an aggressive message to receive from major governmental organization, both in content and tone.  Second, think of the excruciatingly embarrassing situations in which a message like that could appear.  What if I had some terrible or terribly embarrassing diagnosis and it popped up in a public place – at work, on a date, waiting in line at the coffee shop?  iPhones don’t have the most private new message system, at least by default.  Or what if someone borrowed my phone and saw the message?  Anyway, I wasn’t hugely worried, but the thought was funny and I’m sure someone has gotten into an awkward situation before.  There’s probably a tumblr out there somewhere on awkward text messages from the doctor.  Regardless, I deleted the message to avoid it ever coming up in conversation.

Aside from the hilarity, are text messages from the GP/specialized clinics a good thing?  I would whole-heartedly say, yes!  The blood clinic cut out the middleman, my GP, and relayed the results directly to me.  They saved the time of NHS employees and therefore also cost, and I’m sure sending the text message was cheap.  I’m not sure what other health care systems/providers in different countries do and maybe I’m behind the times, but I was quite impressed with the novelty.

Of course, technology is necessarily permeating health care.  The introduction of electronic medical records that can be instantly transferred so that our health care practitioners have access to our full medical histories when we go to different doctors is a major positive undertaking  (1,2).  Another example is the mass amounts of health apps available for smart phones.  You can calculate your BMI, type II diabetes risk, consult WebMD, or check your skin for melanomas using your smart phone.  However, these apps are not always reliable – an investigation of melanoma-checking apps found that 3/4 apps incorrectly classified 30% of more of melanomas as unconcerning (3).

Photo cred: The Onion

Photo cred: The Onion

There are also major growing pains with introducing technology into health care.  Right now, millions of Americans are frustrated with the wide-scale crashing of the Obamacare website, which just became active on October 1.  The website is the online portal for Americans to sign up to health care provided through the government, commonly referred to as ‘Obamacare’.  As an optimist, I feel it will turn out fine in the end and the United States will hopefully be left with a legacy of more equitable and affordable health care for all citizens.  It is a serious glitch to occur in the first steps of implementation though, and only time will tell what will happen.  In the meantime, the ‘mysterious girl’ on the Obamacare website has become the subject of countless Internet memes, and is probably hating her life right now.  And that’s yet another joy of the technology-healthcare intertwining – countless opportunities for social media and cultural phenomena. Bring on the rest of the 21st century!

1)      Silversides A. Canadian physicians playing “catch-up” in adopting electronic medical records. CMAJ 2010;182(2). doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-3126.

2)      Cimino JJ. Improving the electronic health record – are clinicians getting what they wished for? JAMA 2013;309(10):991-2. doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.890

3)      Wolf JA, Moreau JF, Akilov O, et al. Diagnostic accuracy of smartphone applications for melanoma detection. JAMA Dermatol 2013;149(4):422-6. doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.2382.

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