With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and promise of millions of newly insured individuals gaining access to more health care, the growing problem of doctor shortages in the United States has suddenly taken center stage. Health care experts and policy officials are rightly worried about increased wait times for patients and doctors that are overworked and stretched too thin.
The Association of American Medical Colleges has warned that by 2020, there will be a shortage of more than 90,000 doctors in the U.S., with each state facing its own unique challenges. That number becomes even more troubling in light of an aging population, increased life expectancy, and more patient visits spurred by the ACA.
The debate surrounding the ACA has confirmed that our insurance system requires changes, but it also highlighted the we need to simultaneously address challenges facing providers. While the doctor shortage has now been brought to the fore, attention and investment is finally being given to technologies that will help alleviate these problems and transform patient care as the industry undergoes necessary adjustments and re-evaluations.
Nobody in their right mind would suggest that we don’t need more doctors to match rising demand for care. But any pragmatic approach to increasing doctor supply will take years, and could still be too little, too late. If we’re going to fully address the problem, we need to augment with emerging technologies.
Here’s how we can leverage two sets of technologies to address the doctor shortage challenge while improving outcomes.
Better Data and More Proactive Solutions
As the ACA continues to improve health coverage for the estimated 48 million uninsured Americans, the impetus in our health care approach can finally shift from emergency treatment to proactive health maintenance and prevention. Essential for this change will be new ways to track and understand patient health data.
Even just properly syncing medical records is a daunting IT challenge that hospitals and doctors have been grappling with in recent years. Yet better tracking of and access to individuals’ health data on a day-to-day basis will alleviate doctor visits, reduce escalation of serious problems, and empower patients to take more control of their health care.
The rise in fitness tracking devices over the past two years is an encouraging sign for similar technologies to take hold in more sensitive health care use cases. This extends beyond simply sleep or calorie tracking to apps that can help track blood glucose levels for diabetics or medications and conditions for other chronic diseases.
Mobile health solutions and monitoring will increasingly become part of doctor prescriptions, which will provide them with better, real-time data on patients’ condition and health, and lead to lower costs and decreased doctor visits. And for doctors, being able to quickly and accurately gauge updates on patient conditions eases a considerable record and resource burden, while also giving patients the ability to provide accurate, up-to-date medical records in an emergency. In short — the patient becomes part of the team of people helping to treat and manage their conditions.
This doesn’t extend simply to doctor reporting, however. As a recent Pew Research report noted, 70 percent of adults track some form of health indicator and a quickly growing 21 percent of them use mobile health technologies. These technologies aren’t simply about providing more accurate data for doctors, but also for individuals.
Never has the cliché of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” been so true — except now perhaps we should say “an app of prevention.”
IVAs Are a Doctor’s Best Friend
Of course, with the waves of new data that will be made available to doctors and patients, the challenge quickly shifts from tracking and reporting to being able to understand that data.
While RockHealth, a San Francisco-based incubator that supports healthcare startups, estimates that big data solutions could save the industry over $300 billion per year, the challenge, as always, is making that information actionable.
Here, the rise of Intelligent Virtual Assistants (IVAs) in health care becomes not simply a Siri-esque luxury, but an absolute necessity, and the technology is quickly developing to aid doctors in this regard. Yes, this is an area where my company is focused, but you can expect numerous IVA’s to emerge with unique medical specialities and expertise, much like a human doctor or nurse.
The key for any IVA solution to be effective is three-fold: domain expertise, contextually aware interactions, and human-defined learning. IVAs can consume a vast amount of medical information — more than any doctor could possibly know — but more importantly can understand and apply that knowledge (as defined by human developers) to the data and information being received from patients.
To be clear, IVAs are not, and should not be, a replacement for doctors. They are however, an aid to both the doctor and patient in helping process and act on information with an efficiency that can’t be matched by the current system of in-office visits and voicemail followups.
The problem of doctor shortages in the U.S. is indeed real, and it’s a challenge that needs to be addressed holistically as the ACA increases access to healthcare. Yet with the perceived hysteria in recent articles on the problem, what is being lost is the focus on the technologies that are necessary parts of the solution in the near- and long-term.
Just as improvements in data tracking and health monitoring are finally being recognized as important cornerstones of the health care solution, IVAs and assistive technologies have reached the point where they need to be looked at seriously by regulators and health care providers. We need to act now to give our healthcare workers the proper toolbelt to scale their current capacity and meet the rising demand.
The technology to grow our health care system while improving outcomes and patient engagement is within our grasps — now it’s time for our leaders to move to make it a reality.