Northwest Health Summer 2012

Research

The Promise of Technology

Can apps and other electronic tools help us manage our health?

Go to: Northwest Health Index

If you're trying to lose weight, would receiving an encouraging text message every day help you stick with your weight loss plan? Could an app on your smartphone help you manage your diabetes?

As experts develop technology to help patients access health care and manage their health, researchers are looking at whether these new tools are making a difference. Group Health, which has been a leader in providing information technology to patients, is asking these questions too.

James Ralston, MD, MPH, a researcher at Group Health Research Institute (GHRI), says many patients have responded enthusiastically to Group Health's technological upgrades. "The adoption of MyGroupHealth has been pretty striking," he says, referring to the secure area of Group Health's website where patients can go to order their medications, check their health record, make an appointment, e-mail their doctor, and more. (Some of these functions are only available to members who get care at Group Health Medical Centers.) Many of these services are also available via Group Health's new mobile app.

These tools seem to be expanding access to care for many people. Some patients may prefer secure e-mail for sensitive or embarrassing topics rather than talking about them on the phone. Using the website or an app may also avoid an unnecessary trip to a medical center. Dr. Ralston says Group Health sets a response time of one business day for medical providers to respond to patient e-mails. "The value of messaging drops off a lot after that," he says. The fast turnaround means patients are more likely to use that technology.

Certain groups appear to be reaping special benefits from these new tools. Research at GHRI has shown that people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, or those whose health has recently changed, are more likely to use MyGroupHealth. Dr. Ralston and colleagues at the University of Washington found positive results for patients with diabetes who used a Web-based management program that allowed them to upload blood sugar readings, review medical records, and send secure messages to providers. Another study by a GHRI affiliate showed positive results for patients who use the Web to help control hypertension at home.

Not all efforts with technology have been equally successful. Evidence suggests that simply providing better access to information is not enough to improve health outcomes for most patients. "These services must be tied to proactive outreach and follow-up," Dr. Ralston says.

And barriers such as lack of Internet access, language, or health literacy can make apps or a website less useful. "We need to think about making access and care better for everyone," says Dr. Ralston. In other words, these technological advances can sometimes help provide better and more efficient care, but they aren't necessarily a replacement for a visit or telephone chat with the doctor.

Mobile App Is Gaining Followers

Group Health launched its mobile application for the iPhone and Android late last year. Patients are using it most frequently to read messages from their health care team, view lab reports, and look at future appointments, says Colby Voorhees, Group Health senior product manager. Group Health is actively researching other mobile tools to help patients manage conditions like diabetes, or stick to a weight-loss plan. "We are just beginning to understand the potential of these communication technologies to support health," says Dr. James Ralston. "But it's important that they are used in a way that helps improve patient access to care and improves the quality of care."

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