Breaking Up With Paper Industry Focus: Digital Health

Mandy Movahhed
November 19, 2014

Here at Breaking up with Paper, we talk a lot about technology’s role in transforming the world of wholesale. In thinking about how technology can increase efficiency and fundamentally change the way people interact with each other, it can be useful to gain insight and inspiration from technological advancements across other industries as well. This time around, we’re taking a deeper look at digital innovation’s impact on healthcare. It’s a simple fact that paper processes breed inefficiency, no matter what field you’re in. In the healthcare industry’s case, countless doctors’ offices and hospitals across the country remain filled with manila file folders and paper records, and medical professionals have little choice but to rifle through each patient’s stack of papers and photocopy and/or fax them when making referrals. There’s light at the end of the tunnel however, as digitization slowly but surely makes its way through every facet of the healthcare system, from electronic medical devices to mobile apps. Snide remarks about the website aside, this transition away from paper has been a refreshing development in an industry looking to respond to reforms, reduce costs, and improve patient outcomes. While these trends have yet to be adopted in hospitals and clinics everywhere, here are some of the ways in which the healthcare industry’s move toward a complete break-up with paper has been making an impact on doctors, patients, and the field as a whole.

Digital Health: The Impact

1. An Increase in Patient Safety

A cursory look at a few scribbles on a prescription pad or medical chart, and it becomes quickly apparent that the majority of doctors appear to have poorer handwriting than most kindergarteners. While this stereotype doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone in a white labcoat, any bit of chickenscratch can inevitably lead to dangerous errors in interpretation and judgment. While bad handwriting often results in annoying mistakes in other contexts that can ultimately be rectified, a misread piece of handwriting in a hospital can actually be life-threatening. Errors are not uncommon, and if other on-duty doctors, nurses, and pharmacists cannot properly decipher a doctor’s notes, it can lead to delayed or even incorrect treatment. By having all this information digitized (and readable) in Electronic Health Record systems and digital prescription applications, patients will no longer have to fear the possibility of getting incorrect dosages or drugs due to bad handwriting. Certain prescription order entry systems also have an additional feature that reminds clinicians of possible dangerous interactions between multiple drugs.

2. Telemedicine Technology

Not only do digital medical records reduce the risk of errors, they open up a wealth of opportunity for the development of telemedicine technology. Telemedicine is a growing field involving the digital transfer of medical information and the use of video communication to diagnose and treat patients remotely. With the ability to access a patient’s medical history with the click of a button, doctors can now have consultations with patients who aren’t even in the room. This is especially useful for people in isolated areas where doctors and specialists may not be available locally. This will replace the necessity of faxing, photocopying, and mailing huge stacks of files, as well as the delays resulting from that cumbersome process.

3. More Fruitful Interactions Among Doctors and Patients

Digital records also herald a change in the way doctors consult with each other, and the way patients interact with doctors. In the past, getting a second opinion was difficult and time-consuming, often with little coordination among doctors. Many patients settled for only the treatment advice from their primary doctor. With the fast transfer of digital medical information, however, patients can get second, third, or even fourth opinions from healthcare professionals miles away from them and from each other. Doctors, in turn, can consult with others who’ve dealt with similar cases in the past and access their patients’ information no matter where they are. With more doctors working in a team-based care model, they can share information and learn from others, and patients can benefit from a much wider set of medical opinions when making important treatment decisions.

4. A “Smart Grid” for Medicine

What’s possibly the most exciting aspect of these developments is that it’s possible for electronic health records to be aggregated into searchable medical databases, which according to The Economist,

will provide “a ‘smart grid’ for medicine that will not only improve clinical practice but also help to revive drugs research.” In other words, with all those records in one place, researchers will be able to access an enormous data set with which they can analyze broad trends, craft predictive models, and identify possible candidates for clinical trials. This will streamline research efforts and speed up clinical decision-making.

5. Faster, Smarter Radiography

It turns out that x-rays are also going from paper to digital. Waiting for labs to develop film and bring out your x-rays on photo paper may soon be a thing of the past, as there are now digital sensors capable of doing the same job. Those digital images can be viewed immediately or sent from the technician to doctors and patients via email. They can also be digitally enhanced for clearer viewing. For patients, it’s important to also note that digital radiography actually involves less harmful radiation than conventional radiography. It’s also much more cost effective, because the supplies involved in chemical processing are no longer needed.   The healthcare industry is definitely a latecomer to the paper-to-digital transition, and there are still many hurdles to overcome. This transition to digital health solutions, however, is beginning to have a visible impact. Not only are medical professionals able to communicate with patients more effectively and start increasing operational efficiency, consumers also stand to gain access to more flexible care options and a better overall experience at the doctor’s office. Do you have thoughts on other ways wholesalers can learn from their counterparts in healthcare? Do you have ideas for other industries to highlight? Let us know in the comments!