Health Data Ushers in a New Era for Healthcare Communicators

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Patrick George, director, healthcare practice, KP Public Affairs.
Patrick George, director, healthcare practice, KP Public Affairs.

One year ago this week the US Department of Health and Human Services implemented a new rule giving Americans access to their personal laboratory information without first requiring the approval of their healthcare provider.

From that point forward, Americans in all fifty states were able to directly request and access medical lab data.

Patients benefit when they can directly access their health data. Studies suggest that direct patient access to healthcare information could improve patient participation in healthcare and possibly quality. A study published in 2009 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that patients were not informed of more than 7% of abnormal test results. Another study, published in Lab Medicine in 2007, found that patients want information on their lab results and suggests patients would be more satisfied with the healthcare system if they were given greater data access.

However, reality sets in when patients, physicians and technology are forced to interact. For professional communicators in the healthcare industry, here are some tips to help clients better understand how to maximize interaction in the digital age.

Embrace internet information sources. Heretofore, physicians and other healthcare providers have too often adopted a rigid “all-Internet-resources-are-unreliable” attitude. However, in droves patients continue to seek information from all manner of Internet searches—aka “checking with Dr. Google.” In fact, Google recently revised the format of its home page to answer healthcare questions. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 72% of American Internet users make healthcare inquiries online.

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Patients benefit when physicians and their professional associations take a more reasoned approach with the Internet—promoting reliable sources and even contributing their own content. Many websites such as WebMD, Mayo Clinic and eMedicineHealth are vetted by highly trained experts and share up-to-date research that can positively impact physician-patient conversations. Blogs, either through professional associations or a medical group's own website, are an increasingly popular way to reach patients with content about disease management and health and wellness.

Urge patients to adopt mobile health apps. According to a recent survey by Research Now, 96% of consumers believe mobile health apps have the potential to improve their quality of care. In addition, 86% of healthcare professionals believe that health apps will increase their knowledge of patients' conditions.  However, only 30% of patients use mobile apps to monitor existing health conditions

Professional communicators can aid in mobile heath adoption by promoting the benefits of mobile apps.  Mobile apps that remind patients to take medications, manage chronic conditions and engage in wellness and prevention strategies keep patients engaged and activated in their health, resulting in patients that are more satisfied with their care experience.

Bonus: mobile devices also can help physicians fulfill Meaningful Use Stage 2 criteria requiring heightened patient engagement.

Communicate comprehensively across many platforms. Research, training, toolkits, clearly written instructions and materials, forging relationships among industry groups and public education programs can aid all points in the healthcare continuum, from contact to completion. For example, the Federal Health Program for American Indians and Alaskan Natives takes a multifaceted approach by enlisting questions, providing feedback and offering an array of no-cost handout material.

Now that patients are accustomed to having greater access to their medical data, there is no turning back. Direct access enables a sense of patient empowerment, further allowing patients to engage in their healthcare choices, ultimately driving better health decisions and outcomes.

At next week's HIMSS Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago, the largest health IT event in the industry, medical administrators and healthcare practitioners will be exposed to the newest tools and innovations to promote patient interactions and engagement. Communications professionals in the healthcare industry are doing a service to public health when they encourage patients to own and manage their health data.

Patrick George is director of the healthcare practice at KP Public Affairs.

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