Last week, I participated in a webinar titled “Using Technology to Improve the Public’s Health: 2010 and Beyond.” It was an interesting discussion hosted by CommonHealth ACTION, an organization committed to reducing health disparities in the United States. The webinar sparked my thinking on the subject, and I came up with a few examples of how technology is helping improve public health.
Thanks to technology, patients are becoming more informed than ever before. Medical professionals are no longer the gatekeepers of medical information, as patients now have access thanks to search engines like Google. In fact, a recent survey found that Google is second only to doctors in influencing health care decisions.
In addition, patients are now able to do peer-to-peer research on medical conditions and doctors through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. My sister recently used Facebook to ask if any of her friends had experiences with area doctors who performed a particular type of surgery that she needed. Surprisingly, she received several responses that confirmed her feelings about her own doctor and that prompted her to switch to another.
Medical professionals are also taking advantage of technology and using it to improve the care they provide. As important as technology has been in expanding patient knowledge, it has perhaps had the greatest impact on the knowledge and abilities of medical professionals. And although technological advances haven’t gained full-scale adoption by medical professionals, they are growing in popularity.
In last week’s webinar, Dr. Jay Sanders, president and CEO of The Global Telemedicine Group, spoke of how broadband and cellular technology is allowing doctors in teaching hospitals to provide diagnoses and support for medical facilities in rural communities with fewer resources. The internet and mobile technology are also making it possible for medical professionals to monitor patients remotely and in real time for conditions like heart problems and blood pressure spikes. In the future, said Sanders, patients will be able to keep tabs on their own blood pressure and blood glucose levels using accessories built for smartphones.
Technology is also playing a role in keeping doctors up-to-speed with the ever-changing medical field, allowing them to participate in online training to enhance and expand their knowledge and skill sets. Broadband technology is also allowing medical professionals to have greater access to the latest medical research, as many professional journals allow for article review and purchase through online portals.
I would be remiss to omit the electronic medical record from this discussion, as it could potentially have the greatest impact on public health in the future. From allowing doctors to see a more complete picture of a patient’s medical history to helping pharmacists prevent drug interactions to aiding in cumulative reporting of public health trends, EMRs will certainly change the field of public health at its core.
Public health professionals are using technology to inform and engage key audiences. Patients and providers aren’t the only individuals who are benefiting from recent advances in technology, as public health professionals are harnessing its power as well.
There are numerous examples of public health organizations using innovative means to reach and engage people, from those using services like Community Voice Mail to tackle health issues among people living in poverty to those using text messaging campaigns to help people identify a nearby clinic offering HIV/AIDS testing. Another great example is HHS’ creation of special widgets to help people learn more about and track the H1N1 flu outbreak.
No matter how you look at it, technology is becoming a fundamental part of public health. As we move toward the future, technology and public health will become increasingly intertwined. As such, individuals and organizations seeking to improve public health should think of technology as a necessary—not an optional—component of public health campaigns, programs, and care. It’s an exciting time to be involved in protecting public health, and I am looking forward to watching how technology will continue to make a significant impact on our field.