From apps to wearable tech, more people are turning to technology to help them lead healthier lives. For the healthcare sector, the latest technological advances present fresh opportunities to understand our patients, personalise the care we offer and enhance patient outcomes.

What is a digital patient?

A ‘digital patient’ is a person who uses digital tools to manage their health. This could be an online consultation tool that connects a patient with their doctor, wearable tech that tracks activity, or a smartphone app that allows patients to monitor their health.

The range of ways to engage with your health is wide and varied, and so are the patients using these tools – from tech-savvy digital natives to senior members of the community. What’s important is that the digital patient represents a new way of empowering people to take an active role in their health.1

Who is the digital patient?

In a recent report, it was found that young adults were the first adopters of wearable health technologies.2 What may be more surprising is that 67% of patients feel that digital access to their health records is important to them, with 70% reporting that electronic prescription refills would also be preferable.2 Over half of the seniors that were surveyed said that they would like to be able to make online appointments and communicate with their healthcare provider via email.3

Insights have also indicated that the digital patient is open to embracing a more digitised means of approaching their healthcare. In the UK 75% of the population goes online for health information.3

Challenges with the digital patient

While there are many benefits to adopting a digital approach to patient care, there are also some challenges. The internet – or “Dr. Google” – can often be the first point of call for many patients researching a medical problem. Others may be swayed by health information shared by friends and family or social media. This poses a problem: How can we ensure that the information available is trustworthy and accurate across these platforms?

Security is also a big concern for digital patients, especially as it’s a significant factor in building trust in virtual healthcare services. Like any other data, online patient records can be susceptible to security breaches, while paid lifestyle apps have been found to have shared personal data with parties not disclosed by the developer.4 There is much room for improvement going forward.

The future of the digital patient Beyond phone apps, virtual consultations and wearable tech, where could this technology eventually take us? Researchers have posed an extension of the idea of a centralised electronic health record (EHR) and creating our own health avatars so healthcare providers can consider individual health issues in the context of the whole body.5

A health avatar – a digital whole-body health record – could be a central way to store every relevant piece of medical information about us. Every time we collect more data, such as a scan or a medical exam, this would be added to our own personal avatar to build a complete picture of our health.5 Moreover, behavioural or genetic data could also be captured and used to help inform clinical decisions.5

In other words, what if we could have our own ‘digital twin’ that represented and stored the sum of our medical information?5

These avatars may not be as far away as we think. Already, computational avatars have demonstrated improvements in patient health outcomes, and validation of decision aids as part of these technologies continues to be rigorously assessed.6

While there remain some barriers to overcome, the future certainly seems bright for the digital patient. Ultimately, the goal is to place patients at the very heart of their own healthcare, both physically and virtually.