‘We are working to understand the language of disease’
PHILADELPHIA – The new Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health will focus its work this year on linking social media data to medical record data to learn novel insights about patients and improve their health care outcomes. Here’s what Dr. Raina Merchant, the director of the center, formerly the Penn Social Medial and Health Innovation Lab, had to say about her team’s work and why it’s important.
HHTN: How does the center’s work impact home health care?
MERCHANT: We are engaged in several research projects that address some of the complexities and challenges of home-based care. One project involves recruiting patients who receive care in various places within the health system and asking them to consent to share their social media so we can merge these data with their medical record data. We are working to understand the language of disease to see if we can predict from social media behavior who is more likely to be sick, to become sick or to utilize health care resources. An operational project of ours is to staff what we call a “digital health bar” in specific outpatient clinics, with the goal of exposing patients to evidence-based digital tools that can help to manage chronic disease. Relatedly, we are exploring useful and effective ways to “hover” over our patients outside of visits, to help in the optimization of their care and treatment.
HHTN: How is technology transforming the way health care is delivered today?
MERCHANT: The recent uptake of smart phones, devices, wearables and social media platforms have led to opportunities for providing care or monitoring patients outside of visits. As a result, health care providers monitor health conditions in novel ways and new technologies are enabling health care to be more proactive rather than reactive.
Today, a patient can share things like blood pressure data with family members and friends on social media channels. A patient can rely on these contacts for support and encouragement or even potentially affect how or what people in a network of contacts are talking about on social media with respect to health issues.
HHTN: What are some existing obstacles to wider adoption of the use of technology for home health, and how can they be overcome?
MERCHANT: First and foremost, facilitating access to these technologies for all is absolutely key but also costly. A greater reliance on using technology in the home has the potential to worsen already existing disparities in health outcomes. The digital divide is also a real problem. Everyone runs the risk of not benefiting from user interfaces that are poorly designed, exclusive in their target populations and generally frustrating to use or clunky. We are not at a stage yet where we can recommend a specific app or technology most likely to help patients manage specific conditions, and we have a long way to go before we have evidence-based recommendations for certain apps, devices, platforms or wearables. Furthermore—and rarely addressed—nearly one in five Americans do not speak English in the home and most apps to interface with devices (or even patient portals) do not support other languages.
HHTN: How do you see home health care changing in the next five years?
MERCHANT: Patients will have better tools to help them manage their disease on a continuous and on-going basis—they will have access to better and more personalized or tailored data visualizations that will enable them to see trends in their health. More sophisticated and evidence-based tools will exist for patients that will seamlessly integrate with their health record and the providers to whom they entrust their care. Health care systems and providers will be able to more rigorously tailor care to individuals, based on a range of observations generated by the patients themselves.