Healthcare practitioners have adopted the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) but patients are not yet satisfied with the services on offer. Can this digital divide be overcome, and how?

Connected Health: “Patients nowadays expect to be able to communicate with a physician online.”
Interview with Rick Ratliff, Connected Health Lead at Accenture US, who spoke to L’Atelier about the phenomenon of the ‘digital gap’ in the health sector.

How did this digital divide come about? Do you have any figures to support this conclusion?

On the one hand, patients definitely want to communicate electronically with their physicians more, so the ball is in the court of the healthcare personnel. On the other hand however, practitioners say that even when patients do have access to electronic communication, over half of them don’t make use of it. So right there you have a digital gap.
Over 91% of medical practitioners polled for an Accenture survey* use Electronic Health Records (EHRs) in a variety of healthcare establishments and more than 60% of doctors use them in their own practices. In general, doctors are adopting digital technology and using it to collaborate with other healthcare personnel, but they don’t use it to communicate with their patients. Only 10% of the doctors surveyed stated that they share information efficiently with their patients or communicate with them efficiently. In our 2013 survey on patient involvement, we asked the question: “Would you like to communicate with physicians electronically?” Over two thirds responded in the affirmative, stating that they would at least like to be able to make an appointment online, renew a prescription, send secure emails to their doctor, and so on. And more than 80% wanted access to their EHRs.

How do you explain this desire on the part of the patient to access their own data?

Well, these days, people wear connected objects and other ‘wearable devices’ and so can check up on their own health. Patients nowadays expect to be able to communicate with a physician online in the same way as they communicate via their electronic devices. People can do everything in their daily lives online on their mobile devices – check out their finances, pay bills, buy products, book train tickets, receive notification if there’s a delay, etc. So why shouldn’t we be able to connect to our doctors and access our own medical data? The survey found that 52% of the patients polled were not satisfied with their current experience and were prepared to change to another general medical practitioner if that meant having better access to their data.

Will this digital divide be overcome one day? If so, who will make the first move, patients or doctors?

Yes, the digital gap can be overcome but it’ll take a long time, just as it has taken time for other aspects to catch on. Thirty years ago, Electronic Health Records were introduced to replace paper in offices, but nobody really knew then all that could be done with them. A lot of progress has been made with EHRs since then, and they’re increasingly being used to improve communication between different healthcare bodies but, on the whole, it has taken time to get all this up and running.
Such tools as ‘wearable devices’ will help bridge the gap. This is already a billion dollar market and the forecast is that by 2018 it will be worth around $20 billion. So it’s very useful to keep an eye on how these technological advances are progressing.
Doctors need tools that will help them become more productive and enable them to provide better treatment to their patients. Patients are now keen to manage themselves, in line with the ‘quantified self’ trend. And even the ‘baby boomers’, who are not really ‘digital natives’, now use new ICTs. Consumers nowadays tend to be ahead of the healthcare profession in this respect, so they will probably be the ones who will influence the market and drive it forward.
*Accenture report entitled ‘Connected Health: The Drive to Integrated Healthcare Delivery’, based on a survey carried out among 3,700 healthcare practitioners in eight countries: Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Singapore, Spain and the United States.
By Eliane HONG