Putting the “human” back in human-focused health tech

kid at doctor check up

A 78-year-old man was at a medical center in California when his doctor, who appeared on screen, told him he had just a few days to live. The jaw-dropping event was an example of how, while technology has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare industry, we should never lose sight of the human factor that’s essential for technology to thrive.

Human-focused products and innovations cater to how and why a person might use them. They make processes seamless and intuitive and trigger a positive emotional response. In no area is this more critical than health care.

While an AI robot like IBM’s Watson can run a list of patient symptoms and ailments through an infinite database of research studies and medical journals to discover a potential diagnosis or possible treatment faster than any team of human doctors, it was not built to deliver the news to the patient.

In this case, while the doctor found a way to “be there” for his patient when he physically couldn’t be present, he neglected to take into account the human aspect of his job that technology can’t replicate – compassion. A friend of the family told BBC News that the situation was an “atrocity of how care and technology are colliding.”

In this case, while the doctor found a way to “be there” for his patient when he physically couldn’t be present, he neglected to take into account the human aspect of his job that tech can’t replicate – compassion.

The doctor might have had good intentions. Technology like robots can have a place in healthcare, assisting medical professionals and administration staff by scanning symptoms and vitals, searching for experimental treatments to save time, scheduling appointments, and providing useful information to patients.

Robots like the Samsung Bot Care help people keep track of their vitals at home, remind them to take pills, and log historical data from which medical professionals can review and draw conclusions from, if necessary.

In the California medical center, robots were intended to facilitate remote consultations via video tele-visits – useful for follow-ups to discuss results of a non-critical issue or to hear how a patient is responding to new medication. But delivering life-altering news? Probably not the best idea.

Health tech to improve patient care, quality of life

young nurse checks blood pressure

Human-focused healthcare technologies come in a variety of forms. Smart scales, blood pressure monitors and fitness trackers that keep track of resting and peak heart rate, sleep patterns and other vital stats provide helpful historical data and encourage patients to take a more proactive role in their own health and wellness. Medical professionals might detect anomalies or red flags, while patients can contact health care providers if something’s amiss.

Electronic health records (EHRs) are widely used to help streamline business processes, such as booking appointments, pulling up historical patient files, and collaborating with specialists to get a full patient history.

Virtual Reality headsets can be used for medical student training, providing a realistic view of internal organs and surgery simulations. Patients can benefit from VR, too, enjoying an immersive escape from reality while confined to a hospital bed, or a welcome distraction to help manage pain.

Uber Health provides rides for patients, particularly the elderly, who can’t make it to appointments because of lack of transportation, while UberWAV includes a fleet of wheelchair-accessible vans for patients with disabilities who require them. They can be ordered on the same day, or up to 30 days in advance, and the service uses text messaging so even those without smartphones can partake.

Telus Home Health Monitoring (HHM) gives virtual care teams access to real-time biometrics of patients with chronic conditions so they can intervene if a health issue arises, augmenting in-person care with remote services.

Improving the quality of life and providing greater autonomy for patients poses additional opportunities for human-focused tech in healthcare. Elan Home Systems created an automated home for a quadriplegic, including a touchscreen laptop and tongue-driven mouse and/or voice capabilities so he can control things like lights, the television and bed repositioning once their personal health worker has left for the day.

The opportunities for digital health tech are endless. But it’s essential to focus on a human-centric approach that augments and improves patient experiences, not makes them impersonal and devoid of empathy at the expense of convenience. It’s OK to use a robot to touch in with a patient, confirm appointments, and run through symptoms. But when it comes to literal life or death situations, the technology part loses its value when the human part of forgotten.

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It is our mission to explore the implications of emerging technologies, seeking answers to next-level questions about how they will affect society, business, politics and the environment of tomorrow.

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