Digital health: a pharmacy student's perspective

Illustration of digital health concept

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In the age of information, digital technology affects everyone’s lives. It is one of the most important tools for a modern society to operate efficiently. In healthcare, technology is used not only to reduce human effort, but also to improve a patient’s quality of life, and even save lives.

is the coming together of technology and healthcare. Applications include improving the efficiency of healthcare provision, sharing of information and achieving more personalised care. By addressing the challenges that patients and healthcare professionals face on a daily basis, digital health has the potential to transform the way patients engage with services and manage their health and wellbeing.

“By 2020, it is hoped that a quarter of patients with long-term conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer, will be able to monitor their health remotely.” — BBC News, 2016.

Digital health today

Here is a quick overview of some key innovations in digital health:

mHealth

Mobile health works by collecting a patient’s data during their everyday life. It provides doctors with the unique opportunity to observe how a patient reacts outside of a clinical environment, something they would never be able to achieve through traditional time slots and clinical evaluations.

Telemedicine

Real-time telemedicine allows patients and clinicians to hear and see each other using videoconferencing. Some progress has also been made in the field of ‘telepharmacy’ where videoconferencing has enabled prescriptions to be clinically checked at different departments by a pharmacist working in a single dispensary.

Genetics database

This is a huge database of information that can be used to overcome a number of challenges, such as determining the best possible treatment for an individual. For example, a patient of a particular age, with a certain blood pressure, can receive the treatment that is most suitable for them. With the advent of genetic medicine, pharmacists will need to keep up to date with the latest scientific findings around precision medicine as well as educating patients on these drugs.

Issues around digital health

Many digital health products that demonstrate impressive results in clinical trials often fail in the real world. As a result, only a fraction of these products make it to market. This is because digital health relies on engagement.

A 2017 article about digital health products published in the New England Journal of Medicine’s  reported that: “Patients need to be highly motivated to make behavioural changes.” The authors argue that patients need to be “praised when they follow through and … [given] guidance when they slip up”. Guidance can be as simple as spending more time with patients, making shared decisions and optimising education around digital health with an overall emphasis on better communication.

The Commonwealth Fund conducted a study in which they developed criteria for evaluating patient engagement with mobile apps and developed to enhance patient engagement.

Looking to the future

Although there are a few challenges with the use of technology in healthcare, I certainly feel the future with digital health is bright.

The goal for paperless operation in all healthcare settings, for instance, could save the , as well as help to create a service that would be “more convenient for patients, and help doctors to provide faster diagnoses”.

The importance of digital health in the pharmaceutical industry has also been . Digital health is a strategic opportunity for pharmaceutical companies and some of the forward-thinking companies are now awakening to the opportunity for digital health to strengthen their businesses. Novartis, for instance, has already proposed the idea of using home-based telehealth remote patient monitoring with heart-failure medications. This “digital-drug combo” can save unnecessary trips to the hospital, simply by monitoring patients’ weight gain and intervening early. 

What digital health means for pharmacy

It feels we are just beginning to scratch the surface, with room left for further innovations. The pharmacy profession, in particular, has the opportunity to grow significantly, especially in the community setting whereby pharmacists could use these tools to extend their real-world patient relationships into the digital landscape. Moreover, deploying these digital health tools in a community pharmacy, an incredibly competitive marketplace, could help drive both prescription sales and efficiency. Pharmacists have the potential to be the to be more engaged, which would, in turn, help healthcare providers be more “proactive and prepared”.

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