Is it time for a new narrative in healthcare?

Contributor: Ruchin Kansal
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As parents, we use both positive and negative reinforcement and/or punishment to promote our view of ideal behaviors. While literature is split on what works better, I tend to lean towards the positive. 

My tendencies have been reinforced by the general narrative around us these days – which in my view has become extreme. In a data-driven, social media-enabled world, we are constantly being driven to look at the world as black or white. The continued polarization is stifling the ability to bring diverse thoughts together; the most important ingredient to innovation and advancement. It feels like all of us are always in the corner, fighting to survive and maintain our identity. The notion of the collective good seems to have escaped from our conscience.

Within healthcare, the crisis seems to be highlighted even more. In the past, we deliberated the merits of public versus private coverage; the rising cost of healthcare; and health inequity. These days, amidst the (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, we are debating the merits of science versus hearsay. We have managed to put the credibility of institutions such as the FDA and CDC on the chopping block, so much so that we are putting more faith in the traditionally maligned biopharma companies’ oath of allegiance to science and not politics. We are leaving the world more confused, sicker, and more hopeless every day.  

As I think back to my days when I was in charge of driving innovation and transformation at various healthcare companies, I reflect on the narrative that has surrounded the role of technology in healthcare for the last 5+ years. The potential of technology to improve access and quality and reduce the cost of healthcare is evident. However, the narrative has been centered around themes such as business model disruption, lack of willingness to embrace the new, and us versus them. In the process, we have made the healthcare institutions the evil guys, who don’t get it and will disappear from planet earth because “they don’t get it.” The result – digital health remains a utopian concept, despite the narrative that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology by at least a decade. 

However, could it be that the incumbent healthcare industry is slow and maybe even deliberate in adopting technology and you and I as consumers of healthcare might have something to do with that?

I became very sick during the summer. I was feeling fatigued and feverish. The first step was to get a COVID test, which was negative. I then reached out to my primary care physician’s office and set up an appointment for a virtual visit. After listening to my symptoms, she asked me to come into the office, where the nurse took my vitals and conducted an EKG. As a follow-up, I had to get my bloodwork done, and also make an appointment with a cardiologist that led to a treadmill test. Blood work was normal, and the treadmill test was fine as well. But I was seeing no improvement in my condition. So, it was time for the next virtual visit. My PCP ordered a chest x-ray and more detailed blood work. The chest x-ray was clear, and bloodwork again was non-conclusive. Time for another virtual visit. Now, my PCP prescribed an antibiotic, suspecting an unknown underlying infection. Thankfully, after a few days of antibiotics, I started to feel better and now feel normal. However, I learned a few lessons about the digital model of healthcare:

  1. The first virtual visit was fine, but then I hated it. I was suffering, and I wanted a doctor to see me in person. I wanted to know that I was being taken care of. I looked forward to going to the lab for bloodwork. I enjoyed my masked visit to the hospital for the treadmill test – I was looking forward to human interaction. The convenience of the virtual visit was outweighed by my desire for the empathy of an in-person consultation.
  2. For every healthcare entity with which I interacted, I was enrolled in a patient portal – a one-stop-shop for me to manage appointments, download my records, pay my bills, and ask questions. After enrolling in the first two, I did not even bother to enroll in the next four. I was getting concerned about using the same user ID and password on multiple portals and the security threat it caused. I waited for the bills to show up in the mail and paid them the old-fashioned way.
  3. Despite all the talk of wearables and remote monitoring, my wife monitored my blood pressure at home every day. I kept paper records. I shared pictures of paper records. And I stopped looking at the data being generated by my Oura ring – it was causing me more anxiety than help.

My takeaway­­? Maybe the incumbent healthcare institutions are not the evil we make them out to be. Maybe they are looking at you and me as their customers and driving their adoption of technology based on our willingness and readiness to embrace it? Maybe the innovators and technology gurus amongst us are failing humankind by adopting an us-versus-them narrative regarding the digitization of healthcare?

Maybe we need to change the narrative to embrace the adoption of technology in healthcare? Rather than creating a narrative around Big Data and AI and how it can “fix the inefficiencies” of the healthcare system, we need to create a narrative on how technology can improve the human aspects of healthcare? Rather than positioning technology as a disruptive force, we focus on how we as humans “want to” embrace it and create a narrative that supports adoption from the human/consumer perspective? 

What do you think? Is it time for a new, positive narrative to improve the healthcare experience through technology?

Contact Ruchin at:
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