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3 Unintended Consequences of Digital Health

Digital has become the lens through which we see the world.

Once, there was a separation between our ‘real-life’ activities i.e. what we did from 9-5, and our social activities i.e. what we did on evenings and weekends. The two rarely intersected.

But that line of separation has become blurred.

Today many of our in-person experiences (such as working, shopping, dining out, or watching TV) have leaked into the digital realm through sharing on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. For sure technology has changed the way we live.

Even healthcare is going in the same direction.

Digital media_CMI blog

Perhaps this is best seen in people’s online health activities. Studies show that 85% of U.S. adults use the Internet, while 72% of this demographic say they look for health information online, presumably before seeing a doctor.

Mostly they’re searching for information related to their symptoms or specific medial condition, treatment options, hospitals, doctors, and other health professionals.

As a result the healthcare industry is responding to people’s needs and expectations for better communication and information by integrating digital technologies into their way of doing business.

The problem is, while e-health products and services are important in bringing about all the wonderful outcomes we keep hearing about:

  • Increased patient participation;
  • Improved care co-ordination;
  • Quality and convenience of patient care;
  • Healthcare efficiencies and cost savings;

…I believe that we might begin to see some unintended consequences of our near-total preoccupation with digital healthcare in the near future. Here are 3 of them:

#1. Isolation & Loss of Human Touch

Yes, patients need technology and progressive medical devices to manage their health. But they also need to be seen, listened to, and cared for (physically) by other people, including doctors, nurses and caregivers. Empathy and compassion – a warm smile, a kind word, or a re-assuring tone are equally important in bringing about health and wellness.

I worry that too much focus on digital healthcare, (and conversely too few in-person experiences between doctors and patients) might lead to feelings of isolation, remoteness and even doubt.

Patients who are more passive in nature may even resist the shift to greater personal responsibility and technology-based guidance. The result: They end up feeling like they don’t really have any support to manage their health.

#2. Marginalization of the Poor

While we can all agree that significant advantages are being realized through ehealth products and services, we also have to admit that these technologies mostly benefit those who have access to greater resources.

In fact a 2007 study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine warned that significant challenges must be addressed by the research community to assure that advances in e-health will help eliminate, not intensify health disparities.

I know it’s hard to believe, but there are many people in this country who don’t have access to the Internet, or even a home computer. How will e-health reach these people? The fact is, people or communities with limited access to digital technology are largely the same as those suffering the greatest health disparities and traditionally underserved by the healthcare system.

#3. Information overload

Today, patients are more empowered. They have access to information that can help them make better decisions about their health – in an ideal world.

But as the volume of personal health and wellness data from medical devices, smartphone apps, and even EMR’s increases, patients will be faced with information overload and some may find it hard to act upon.

For passive patients in particular, having too much information at their disposal might actually lead to inaction rather than action, because they’re used to simply following doctor’s orders. In addition to being sick they now have the added burden of figuring out what their health data means and what to do about it.

What do you think?

Is our society overly-optimistic about digital health or do you think there are real challenges ahead?


  1. […] digital health revolution. However CNN did a great job giving equal attention to both the pros and cons of digital health. Huffington Post gave the subject more positive coverage than any other media outlet while Fox […]

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