This article was originally written by Rob Bennett and published on Pharmiweb.com https://www.pharmiweb.com/article/is-whatsapp-the-next-big-innovation-in-healthcare
There are multitude of ways in which we’re seeing consumer technology influence healthcare. With the normalisation of things like IoT, wearable tech, and video conferencing as part of our daily lives, patients are starting to expect the same level of tech from healthcare providers. The world of medicine is defined by innovation and the search for new solutions to provide ever better treatment, and with billions of pounds worth of innovation constantly happening in the consumer sector, it makes total sense for healthcare systems to capitalise on this and borrow the outcomes for their own gain.
There’s wearable tech that can constantly monitor vitals, fertility apps that can inform users about bodily changes throughout life stages, and telemedicine platforms that are broadening access to consultations, ensuring that physical and financial restrictions don’t hinder healthcare delivery.
Messenger apps, in particular, are set to cause widespread change to the sector in the near future. With other vital services like banking and completing taxes currently utilising the latest messenger tech, healthcare has a lot of catching up to do. Saying that, there are many, many ways in which messenger apps have begun creeping into healthcare already. In 2018, the NHS declared Instant messaging services a ‘vital part of the NHS toolkit’, and our team at Rehab is currently working with a global healthcare business on their own messenger solution to help reduce operational overhead and improve efficiency relating to the prioritization of calls into their contact centre.
But how exactly are messenger solutions being used today?
Perhaps most obviously, their use comes largely through the ability to consult with other professionals. We’ve moved a long way from the traditional pager, and WhatsApp allows for access to expert consultation in real-time - particularly vital for junior doctors who need this to properly carry out their duties. In particular, the use of group chats can easily allow for the pooling of information from all aspects of the patient care organism. There’s evidence to suggest that this might actually contain some additional benefits to young doctors, too, with a study showing that 80% of junior doctors felt that professional group chats helped break down barriers and improved relationships between themselves and more senior colleagues.On top of this, many clinicians have used WhatsApp for a second opinion on crucial imagery, like radiographs, and a study even found that Neonatologists found that when viewing these images on smartphones first, before later on a computer, they made more reliable interpretations than from viewing them on a computer screen first.
The apps can also help to share the burden on busy healthcare services, something of particular importance right now as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK Government has launched a WhatsApp chatbot to provide NHS advice in an effort to take pressure off the NHS's 111 service and combat the spread of misinformation. The WHO has also recently launched a Facebook Messenger version of its WHO Health Alert platform – offering instant and accurate information about COVID-19– via Facebook’s global reach. To date, the WHO Health Alert service has reached over 12m people, with a potential to reach 4.2bn. On top of just alleviating overwhelmed services, this also helps share proper information for hard-to-reach and underdeveloped areas.
So, with messenger apps undoubtedly on the rise, what’s next? What’s being missed? How can we further extend our ability to help people? Babylon Health, for example, are proven innovators in the healthcare space, but what else could they do to help people?
The most important way is through patient engagement. Messenger apps are the means in which we communicate in the modern age and, for many, are the means of organising our day-to-day lives. It’s well within reach to message notes and outcomes directly to a patient after a consultation, or to send reminders on medication and ongoing support throughout treatment. Going one step further, it would be simple to integrate this with a phone’s existing calendar, or to share notes on message engagement with your healthcare professional. On top of these organisational benefits, there are emotional ones too. A conversation is the best, most human means of showing empathy and compassion, more so than a letter or email, meaning it has much to offer the patient experience - particularly in line with the rising focus on emotional management. Perhaps reminders through WhatsApp could be beneficial for mental illnesses, where the struggle for motivation to take meds is well-documented.
As with any future developments in tech, there’s plenty of room for AI, too. The use of chatbots in minor consultations or booking appointments could go a long way in sharing the burden on healthcare systems, before offering a handover to a human professional with all the notes from the interaction neatly summarised. This could eliminate the need for call centres and allow for much-needed additional resources on direct patient care instead.
Looking further, there’s also a huge potential for use in clinical trials, to help increase engagement throughout the trial. Why not engage with these trials through a WhatsApp chatbot to report results, symptoms and side effects? By using a platform that can be accessed from anywhere - that’s already front-of-mind for people - we’d be likely to significantly reduce drop-outs.
Obviously, there are large privacy and security obstacles presented when considering all of the above. There are rightful criticisms that popular messenger apps may fall short of medical practice standards. As a counterpoint, this is helped somewhat by the fact that people are not being diagnosed on these services, but instead just being passed information and helping lead them to the correct outcomes.
On top of this - there are promising changes coming on the horizon. In the US, flexibility is being allowed for tech companies to cooperate with HIPAA, with Amazon now making skills compliant with its code of conduct. On top of this, alternative health-specific platforms like Forward Health are being designed to cooperate specifically with healthcare legal requirements. Technology is undoubtedly moving in the right direction with sensitive information, though big public trust obstacles still remain to overcome.
Messenger apps have taken over many aspects of healthcare already, though one thing is clear - we’re just getting started.
Rob Bennett, CEO of creative technology agency Rehab