The words “empathy” and “technology” are not usually connected, or even used in the same sentence. One has to do with emotions and feelings, the other with zeroes and ones. But as healthcare stakeholders seek to tackle the industry’s biggest challenges – reducing costs while improving quality and outcomes – the most promising solutions are those that employ technology to shed light on all the factors impacting a person’s ability to manage and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and understanding what is going on in that person’s life. Let’s imagine that you have diabetes and receive Medicaid, and you were just discharged from the hospital. Your care manager follows up with you by phone, reminding you to pick up your medication and avoid processed foods. Great, but you live in a high-crime area with limited infrastructure and transportation services. There are no drugstores or grocery stores in the neighborhood within safe walking distance to buy healthy food and fill your prescriptions. Even your community health clinic is too far to walk, with your chronic leg pain. What are you to do?
Population health management tools in use today are good at identifying high-risk patients and alerting care managers when there are gaps in care. But rarely do they go beyond the clinical data to help care managers understand what it’s really like to be that patient. We need to drive towards a future where technology leverages the social determinants of health alongside administrative, financial, and clinical information to close the gaps between patients and the resources they need.
Technology at its best can do what humans will never be able do as well – comb through mountains of data and distill it into meaningful, actionable information. Semantic systems in use today are capable of making inferences and revealing new insights from multiple data sources. These systems can point the way to more rational healthcare spending. What if, for example, instead of treating diseases that are caused by obesity and lack of exercise, we allocated resources to building safe walking paths in communities? What if instead of waiting for our diabetic member to end up back in the hospital, we brought a mobile produce van into the neighborhood? Or delivered medications directly to the home? These services may already be available, but unknown to those managing the member’s care plan.
In healthcare, as financial resources for programs like Medicaid shrink, the need for creative solutions to healthcare challenges that are endemic in poor communities has never been greater. Technology developed with empathy for patients and caregivers can help health plans and communities root out the persistent problems that keep people sick and drive healthcare costs to an unsustainable level.