iWatch of man's wrist (2048 x 1397)

Leaders in the education sector are hot on gamification. From the K-12 space through college, and even into the professional development world, games and learning are finding common ground—often facilitated by novel or repurposed technology.

Medical and health-oriented wearables aren’t gamification utilities per se. However, they do help build a bridge, taking patients and providers to a similar, new space for learning and communicating.

50 ways to reach your patient

Healthcare providers hardly need yet another tech fad or gimmick to concern themselves with. Gamification may be a fun buzzword in academia and on high school campuses, but in the clinical space, engagement is about life and death, about getting paid and keeping hospital doors open—not about test scores or attention spans.

Nevertheless, health tech in the form of consumer-facing devices (the medical IoT) and trends among startups seems to indicate that wearables and patient education are two areas the non-clinical world is trying to move the needle on in healthcare. Wearables are very close to being consumer toys. But they may have more utility in medicine.

The idea is that wearables create a new way for providers to promote healthy lifestyles and choices, to collaborate with patients to monitor progress, to identify baselines, and make engagement the foundation of clinical encounters (rather than just another box that admins want to see checked).

So much for wearables. In an entirely separate surge of Silicon Valley trendsetting, patient education services have become the startup venture of choice adjacent to healthcare, with various companies trying to tackle the education and engagement issue with everything from online portals to virtual reality, mobile apps, and even AI-backed referrals systems. In typical Silicon Valley fashion, the swarm of alternate approaches has had a predictably mixed bag of results ranging from none at all to “just another round of funding and we’ll be ready to transform the system as you know it!

The target market for all this disruptive patient education technology fluctuates almost as much as the nature of the technology itself. One clear lesson, if any is to be found, is that nothing stands a chance of catching on if the caregivers aren’t on board with leveraging it in their day-to-day work with patients.

The opportunity hasn’t been missed…yet

Retailers and consumers love wearables. On the whole, providers don’t quite live up to the enthusiasm often promised by the makers and marketers of devices like FitBit or apps promising to get patients fluent in their own medical needs. It isn’t that the provider community is stacked with Luddites and malcontents; even if it were, digital health records technology has given them plenty of reason to be dubious about the security of healthcare information and the systems in which it is managed.

But that may be exactly where providers, education/engagement startups, and device-makers are putting the cart before the horse. For all the emphasis that has been heaped on connecting wearables and the medical IoT to EHRs and providers, it may turn out that their greatest value is as educational portals and platforms for advancing preventative care.

Providers don’t have to worry about being data gatekeepers holding wearable streams out from EHRs for fear of HIPAA or hackers; if they provide context for interpreting the data these devices measure and report, they’ve already elevated their patients’ understanding. Patients, in turn, can extract great value from their wearables without turning the devices into the cornerstone of checkups and doctor’s visits. When it comes to preventative care—not just in the clinical sense, but in terms of individual habits and self-care—Americans, in general, have plenty of room to improve on basic things like diet, movement, sleep, as well as a broad understanding of key health indicators like blood pressure, glucose, BMI, and balance between self-acceptance and self-improvement.

(Incidentally, all this focus on physical health and discrete measures thereof stand a reasonably good chance of improving mental health as a side-effect; providers and patients would both do well to consider whether the things wearables easily record correlate with intangible improvements in mood, etc.)

Measuring our steps

Progress is subjective. Self-described “gurus” pontificating on everything from management strategies to innovation will warn their listeners not to let good become the enemy of great. In healthcare, criticism aimed at everything from EHRs to the ACA, and even the 12-minute physician encounters, often makes this very mistake: According to such critics, the absence of perfection must indicate the absence of progress.

Not so. The current best application of medical IoT goodies and wearables isn’t trying to make them the new capstone of the healthcare system archway. It may be that using them to nudge patient education forward, even incrementally, is just the sort of thing that will allow these devices and startups to justify their popularity (or their claims of being “the future” of medicine) and give all stakeholders a sense of progress.

Medicine at its core is engaged with postponing the inevitable. Why do we bully ourselves with designating every input as either a total success or an abject waste, then? Wearables aren’t lifesavers, and they don’t need to be. If they can advance patient education and give providers and patients another way to communicate, engage, and learn from one another, then they seem like an awfully welcome addition to the continuum of care. Let arguments over whether they belong in the EHR or under the strict oversight of the FDA wait until they’ve proven their relevance.


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