Although the concept of the “e-patient” is prominent in the age of online patient portals and telehealth, its roots go back to the early days of public internet. Tom Ferguson, a graduate of Yale Medical School, coined the phrase “information age healthcare” in the 1990s. By 1996 he published a forward-thinking book titled Health Online: How to Find Health Information, Support Groups, and Self Help Communities in Cyberspace.
Ferguson, who is credited as the founder of the e-patient movement, died in 2006 while writing a scholarly paper devoted to the topic. He would have been pleased to see the evolution of the e-patient over the last decade. Today millions of patients are taking advantage of internet technology to help understand and manage their health. Healthcare providers are also embracing e-technology in meaningful ways, to engage, support, monitor, and facilitate the treatment of patients.
The results of a New England Journal of Medicine survey published in 2017 highlight the evolution of the e-patient, and the practical benefits of e-patient technology. The survey found that 99 percent of those polled believe that social networks have good potential, particularly for management of chronic diseases and support for healthy behaviors such as weight and nutrition management.
Eighty-five percent of respondents found that wireless biometric devices that communicate health data to doctors are also very helpful. These devices enhance patient health and home-based care, while generating more active patient/provider engagement. Even e-tech as simple as digital appointment reminders, which can be as basic as a text message, were cited as beneficial by 70 percent of those surveyed. Providers are also able to offer a HIPAA compliant multipurpose online scheduling portal to patients. These platforms can include appointment scheduling, insurance verification tools, secure viewing of lab results and medical records, prescription management, and FAQ answers.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) offers an e-patient library comprised of smartphone apps instead of books. In this digital library the NHS offers a wide selection of curated health and wellness apps. They cover everything from panic attack management to cancer care guidelines to steps to take for a healthier pregnancy. E-patients can search for apps that meet their needs and then download them to their mobile devices.
Symptom checkers are another e-patient tool, and the best of these are verified by healthcare leaders such as Harvard Medical School. Studies confirm that they can correctly recommend emergency care about 80 percent of the time, compared to the 64 percent accuracy rate for ordinary internet searches for urgent symptoms. Apps and Wi-Fi communications are no substitute for a face-to-face doctor/patient interaction. But they can make the relationship more effective and efficient, and prompt patients to see a doctor when it is urgent.
One of the most chronic issues in healthcare is poor interpersonal communication between patients and healthcare providers, especially doctors. But advanced digital tools facilitate communication with patients, and in ways that are proving to be vital. Cancer patients, for instance, are using web-based tools to communicate their symptoms to oncologists. The American Society of Clinical Oncology reports profoundly significant results, including not only improvements in quality of life but also longer survival rates. That means that e-patient technology is not just convenient, but it saves lives.