• Article
  • January 19, 2017

Commentary: Supplement Health Care Technology with Human Interaction and Communication

Apps, technology, gadgets and devices create touch points for care teams to interact with patients, but is it all really improving patient care?  

By William Maples, M.D.

Technology promises an effortless data flow between health care teams and facilities, methods for improving health and increased patient engagement. Have we seen that immense promise fulfilled? Yes and no. Patient portals, mobile monitoring devices and apps create potential touch points for patients and care teams to interact, but what are we doing with those touch points? How are we using them to improve the health of our patients? 

Year after year, patients and families list trust, respect, and communication as the most important things they want from their doctor. Even the best technologies will fail unless we couple them with the basic needs of patients and families: trust, being heard and being part of the care team.

Communicate patient portal information 

Patient portals help families visualize and understand their child’s health, but without clear goals, context and communication, portals become just another data sink. But by communicating a clear vision and building trust, clinicians can provide the context needed to make patient portals more successful. 

When families trust their child’s provider, they are more engaged in their child’s care plan. In turn, parents understand what role they play on the care team and are more likely to follow through with monitoring, reporting or discharge instructions. The lab results, charts and reminders in the patient portal become valuable tools for understanding their child’s health, not simply disjointed numbers.

Extend care beyond the walls of the hospital

Technology lives up to the potential of connected health when it helps families become valued members of the care team. We must empower parents to be the care team leader beyond the walls of the hospital.

For example, parents can track biometrics based on the criteria and warning signs they discussed with the child’s provider. A study exploring the use of smartphone apps to measure heart rates in children with abnormal heartbeats concluded that the apps were accurate enough to use for at-home monitoring. Heart rate apps cannot replace EKGs, however, they can provide real-time data to help parents recognize potential risks and initiate conversations with the care team when needed. 

Skeptics might say children and parents will not use apps, trackers or other technologies to monitor their health, after all, 46 percent of people who download a health app never use it. But we should not blame the patient or the app for the lack of interest. It has to do with the relationship between the providers and the family. If trust and strong communication are not present in the relationship, families will be less committed to monitoring health factors no matter how fancy the tool.

Remember, a doctor’s time with families is brief compared to the time they spend caring for their child. We need to make the most of it by creating meaningful connections. If we do, chances are the children we care for will have better outcomes.

Supplement care team communication

Hands-free and wireless technologies provide flexible communication solutions in the fast-paced hospital environment. Devices such as communication badges eliminate the need to physically locate a colleague. Clinicians can simply push a button to have a real-time conversation. 

The increased ease of communication reduces the number of steps it takes to make a decision about the patient’s care, decreases the feeling of hurry up and wait and helps deliver care more efficiently. However, reported drawbacks of this technology include interruptions, miscommunications and poor etiquette when conversing with team members. 

Teams can overcome most drawbacks with communication training. If teams are equipped with strong communication skills, then trust increases and the potential of miscommunications decreases. Effective communication begins with personal relationships, not devices. 

As the demand for mobile health grows, we need to rely on a combination of tools and relationships. Technology can provide devices and security, but trust and meaningful connections are derived from strong communication. When we implement technologies, we cannot forget the human element. 

William Maples, M.D, is executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Excellence (IHE) and chief medical officer at Professional Research Consultants, Inc. (PRC). Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.