Social networks have changed the relationship between patients and their doctors, and new digital hardware and software tools – apps, connected objectives, etc – continue to hit the market. Medical practitioners need to seize hold of them, strengthen this link and help stimulate further innovation.
"In 2011, we introduced the idea that virtual communities would have an impact on the doctor-patient relationship", recalls Denise Silber, founder of the 'Doctors 2.0 & You' event – this year held on 5-6 June in Paris. Since then the situation has evolved considerably and now people all over the world have understood the importance of these changes. "What’s changed in the last twenty years is how much technology has penetrated people’s everyday lives", underlines Larry Chu, an American medical practitioner and Director of the Anaesthesia Informatics and Media Lab at the University of Stanford, USA. He sees it as perfectly normal that the health sector is being impacted. "With smartphones, almost everyone has a computer in his/her pocket. This is an immense opportunity for healthcare practitioners and they need to grab hold of it", he argues. However, Denise Silber laments the lack of initiatives in France: "French people are open and active as users, but innovation in digital health is lagging behind, even though the potential is there". She recognises that the legal issues around data confidentiality do not encourage people to set up their own digital business, but she thinks that basically it’s now up to the State to simplify the procedures for setting up companies.
Communities, blogs, social networks and platforms are all growing in number and increasing in importance with doctors, who have in fact "always accorded a great deal of importance to networks," points out Roberto Ascione, a health sector consulting, media, and communications specialist, who is President of digital and healthcare communications company Razorfish Healthware. He confirms the trend, adding that "many new things are being grafted on to what already exists." We should mention here the range of connected and 'quantified self' objects. In fact Denise Silber thinks it is "striking just how many tools there are." Roberto Ascione observes that "patients are increasingly using mobile health apps," and sees a day when doctors will even be prescribing them. Meanwhile Larry Chu argues that the "key to the future is through innovation designed to improve the patient-doctor relationship." He sees the old 'top down' approach now slowly giving way to ‘participatory medicine’ involving the patient, who is nowadays much better informed and more able to collaborate with the physician. Although all players appear to have become aware of the changes arsing from the new ICTs, not everyone is ready to change his/her behaviour. Larry Chu points out that "it’s the patients who are leading the game when it comes to using social media. The other players are trying to understand how these tools work and how to use them."
Training the key to success?
Denise Silber recommends that medical personnel should receive some training in how to use the new digital tools. Larry Chu agrees, underlining that "doctors must be up with what’s happening and accept the fact that these digital tools can help improve things on a daily basis." Denise Silber also thinks that it’s important for them to be "aware of the business impact of these new models, and the potential increase in revenue that they will bring. If doctors aren’t aware of all these aspects, there’s no motivation for them to convert to the new technologies." Nevertheless, training in new ways of doing things is not just something for medical professionals. Raising the whole issue of health data confidentiality and anonymity, Roberto Ascione suggests that patients should be encouraged to be careful about what they say on the networks, a lesson that Facebook users had to learn in the early years. There are also other factors that will determine how far digital tools are integrated into the health sector. Denise Silber points for example to the key role investors play in encouraging startups. She also argues that the State has a central role to play here, for instance in encouraging the establishment of a library of certified applications and a means of guaranteeing their quality.