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Patients and Personal Health Technology: Wearables, Websites and Apps

By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor

What’s different about patient care today? It’s the age of digital information and personal health technology, including wearables, medical information websites and mobile phone applications. These tools are making it easier than ever for patients to engage in self-diagnosing prior to seeking advice from a medical professional.

A September 2018 Harris Poll surveyed 2,006 adults in the United States and found that 75 percent reported researching their health condition before visiting a doctor or hospital, and 59 percent feel more empowered using these personal health technology tools.

Meanwhile, 80 percent of physicians reported they are more likely to have their diagnoses and treatment plans questioned by patients who do their own online research, according to a November 2018 survey by Merck Manuals.

Yet, both parties are likely to agree that the digital transformation has provided some advantages in medicine. Sixty-one percent of respondents to the Harris Poll reported using an online patient/health care provider portal to communicate or interact with their providers, while 50 percent use a wearable fitness tracker. Physicians and advanced practitioners are also tapping into some of this technology to monitor patients and help manage chronic conditions.

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Steering patients in the right direction: Three top sites

While physicians aren’t likely to keep their patients from trolling the internet about their symptoms, they can help educate them and point them to some of the more trusted sites for information. Here are three of the most reliable resources that physicians often recommend to patients: 

  1. WebMD - When it comes to self-diagnosing, is the king of online health information. With 52 million unique visitors each day, the website is a favorite for those looking to get immediate answers about their health. Visitors can read about a variety of health issues, choose from an array of health tools (BMI calculator, ovulation calculator, calorie counter, etc.), or simply input a symptom into the WebMD Symptom Checker to identify possible conditions and treatment. WebMD is offered as both a website and mobile application.   
  1. Medline Plus - This robust online health information resource is run by two very prestigious and well-known government organizations: The National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It provides a wealth of advice and information on many topics, from health conditions and drugs to medical tests. The site’s resources include videos and online health-check tools such as questionnaires, calculators and tests; some include suggestions for next steps, such as seeing a provider.  
  1. - Although the name may suggest otherwise, this resource is not funded by pharmaceutical companies. Instead, it gets its information from experts such as the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, the Mayo Clinic, and Stedman's Medical Dictionary.  The website and mobile app provide drug information, pill identifiers, medication interactions and much more. 

New innovations in wearable health technology

In addition to standard wearables that track things like the number of steps taken in a day, a host of innovative new devices have been cropping up in the healthcare marketplace. From a bra that detects breast cancer to a small sock that can monitor a newborn’s breathing and other key vitals, wearable technology is becoming the norm. Here are three of the latest high-tech wearable tools:  

  1. iTbra - Developed by Cyrcadia Health, the iTbra uses breast patches that are inserted into bras to monitor circadian metabolic changes in heat that correlate to accelerated cellular activity common in breast tumors and dense breast tissue. The creators of this wearable say that the product could lower the 1.2 million unnecessary breast biopsies that occur worldwide.  
  1. Owlet - This smart sock tracks an infant's heart rate, oxygen levels and sleep. According to the company, 96 percent of Owlet parents report less anxiety when their babies are wearing the device.This wearable technology does not come without criticism, however. In 2016, The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) issued a recommendation update, which said that cardiorespiratory monitors such as the Owlet had “not been documented to decrease the incidence of SIDS.” Parents are advised to discuss usage of these devices, including any concerns about their child’s condition, with their pediatrician. 
  1. KardiaBand and KardiaMonitor - Tracking heart health, the Kardia suite of wearables can help a patient identify an episode of atrial fibrillation without having to go into a hospital for a test or wear a bulky vest that must be worn for days or weeks at a time. The device works in conjunction with the Apple Watch heart rate sensor to detect any irregularity in the wearer’s heart rate. The user simply places his or her fingertips on a small pad and the device takes a 30-second EKG reading.

Health wearables, websites and smartphone apps provide patients and consumers with health data and information that was once solely provided by healthcare professionals. However, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing,” as the saying goes, especially when self-monitoring turns into self-diagnosing, or the patient isn’t communicating with his or her physician.

Patients should be advised to seek professional medical attention when it comes to any potential health problem. At the same time, physicians need to listen to patients’ concerns, enhance their education and maintain a relationship of trust.  

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