The NIH’s All of Us program is just one example of what’s to come.
Like many other industries, healthcare is undergoing a digital transformation. New and evolving technologies pledge to increase healthcare value and improve coordination and outcomes for patients, healthcare providers, and health researchers alike. Wearables and mobile devices, the increased use of electronic health records (EHRs), patient portals, patient-reported data, and online patient/doctor communication tools are clearing new paths in a traditionally complex space. One of many up-and-coming applications is in the field of digital health research.
Learning about human health, wellness, and disease is a difficult process, but researchers are now employing mobile technology to discover deeper insights that integrate multi-omics with environmental, lifestyle, and behavioral data to provide a higher level of precise and personalized treatment. These results require improved ways for recruiting and engaging patients, collecting data, and establishing trust by delivering value. Digital health technology has quickly emerged as the new foundation to reach these goals.
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Patient engagement and recruitment, data collection, and retention are crucial ways mobile technology is improving health research. The National Institutes of Health’s All of Us research program is paving the way for this digital movement. Its mission to gather data consistently throughout the next 10 to 40 years from more than 1 million Americans makes the national program both transformative and groundbreaking. Its goal is to expedite health research to subsequently improve the health of the American public.
With its reliance on technological innovation, All of Us will empower researchers to discover how respective differences in lifestyle, environment, and biological makeup affect health. As the first initiative of this scale and scope in digital health research, All of Us will set standards for new ways of engaging research participants and sharing health data by utilizing modern technology.
One of the greatest challenges for health research is the identification, recruitment, and retention of patients to participate in various studies. Traditionally, this has been done through in-person conversations and paper-based consent processes. There are several outreach and recruitment channels, but mobile technology has emerged as one of the more successful ways to reach potential participants.
Not only does mobile technology help in gathering patients’ data, but it can also be used to accelerate the recruitment of qualified patients in clinical studies. Researchers with the appropriate research management can use EHRs as initial pre-selection tools to identify potential participants so they can be more quickly screened and enrolled in important health research programs.
Researchers understand the importance of patients who take a special interest in their own care and are thus prioritizing the value of patient engagement. High levels of engagement typically lead to more frequent data collection, greater breath of data, better health outcomes, decreased healthcare costs, and greater patient satisfaction. As such, researchers are embracing new technologies such as sensors, patient portals, and mobile health apps to increase engagement. These forms of mobile technology allow patients to request prescription refills, schedule appointments, improve ongoing communication with their healthcare research team, and learn more about their condition, progress of treatment, or research study.
Technology also helps improve patient engagement by improving communication with patients and participants. This includes everything from new algorithms and machine-learning approaches to sending appointment reminders via text message. Machine learning can predict when a person is most receptive to such communications or distribute personalized educational information to the patient’s smartphone, both of which help keep dropout rates at a minimum and lead to more valuable research.
When patients use mobile technologies like iOS/Android apps and wearable devices like Fitbit, researchers can easily collect data in real time. This automatic and passive data collection provides researchers a more extensive and accurate understanding of a patient’s health and the wide range of elements that affect it.
Coupled with faster data processing, this form of information gathering could lead to identification of preventative approaches, faster discovery of new cures, and earlier identification and resolution of gaps in individuals’ health and health delivery systems. Researchers may leverage these tools as a way to get closer to and better understand the health industry as a whole, from individual patients to population variations and more.
Mobile technology can help researchers create and improve patient expectations by fostering interactive informed consent, enforcing better protection of data security through encryption, and safeguarding data privacy. Constructing strong privacy and security arrangements, such as data encryption and authentication mechanisms for EHRs and other patient data, helps healthcare providers build trust with patient. The more confidential and secure the data is, the more at ease patients feel when giving health providers access to their information.
Informed consent is becoming an increasingly complex part of health research. Questions surface around the sufficiency of the process of consent and whether subjects are fully educated and truly understand what they are giving permission to before the trial. Savvy researchers are starting to opt for electronic informed consent, using mobile devices or tablets as a means of keeping costs to a minimum. Through video, presentations, animations, and the like, patients experience improved recall and increased informed consent. Patients are more interactive when they are informed of the risks and benefits online, instead of reading through a drawn-out paper copy.
Digital health research is advancing precise prevention, detection, and treatment of a range of health conditions. While we have seen rapid innovation in the space, there is more to come. Mobile technology allows for the discovery of deeper insights and pushes researchers to emphasize individualizing care. Without it, we would still be working with a one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare, which is simply not good enough. The All of Us research program is just taking root, and we can only imagine where technology takes the healthcare industry and what else is on the horizon.
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