There was a time when using technology to deal with health issues meant Googling your symptoms. Today, a host of new high-tech tools — including videoconferencing, electronic disease monitoring, even virtual diagnosis — is changing the way we use health care.
"New technologies allow more patients access to physicians and specialists, strengthen the doctor-patient relationship and allow you to obtain on-demand treatment. It breaks down barriers to care," says Thomas Hale, M.D., executive medical director of Mercy Virtual, which helps health care organizations use technology to improve care.
Here are nine high-tech options that may change your health for the better.
1. Health apps
Best for: Chronic conditions, medication management
How they work: Twenty percent of smartphone users rely on health care apps. And with thousands out there, you may have downloaded one or more to remind yourself to take medication, record vital signs such as blood sugar or blood pressure, or collect information on symptoms like mood changes. Preliminary research shows that certain apps, like those that track migraines or manage chronic pain conditions, can help ease symptoms.
Examples: MedCoach, Fooducate, OnTrack Diabetes
Beware: "Apps are the wild, wild west of medical devices," says Steven Steinhubl, M.D., director of the Digital Medicine Program at Scripps Health in San Diego. "You don't know if they do what they say they do." For instance, a review of four apps in JAMA Dermatology found that three of them misdiagnosed melanoma (a potentially deadly form of skin cancer) at least one-third of the time. Ask your doctor to vet any apps that you want to use.
2. Electronic medical portals
Best for: Keeping track of your care
How they work: Log in to your provider's medical portal online to view lab and test results, manage appointments, collect electronic medical records, refill prescriptions, even communicate with your physician. Not only are more doctors using these portals, but there is growing evidence that they actually help patients manage care — particularly patients who are dealing with multiple conditions or who are undergoing rounds of treatments and tests. In one study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice, cancer patients at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center logged into the electronic medical portal MyChart an average of 109 times over five years. Portals centralize communication in an easy-to-access way, explains Simon Craddock Lee, senior author of the study.
Examples: Patient Fusion (patientfusion.com), MyChart
Beware: To the untrained eye, test results could cause confusion and anxiety, so it's important to communicate clearly with your doctor about any concerns you have, Lee says.
3. At-home disease monitoring
Best for: Chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, heart failure
How it works: "Patients don't live in a doctor's office. They must manage their care at home," says Monica Peek, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. There are a couple of ways to do that. One: with devices that hook up to your smartphone and allow you to measure your blood pressure, heart rate or blood-sugar levels at any time. Another: through automated text message-based programs that send alerts to your phone reminding you to take medication, get 30 minutes of exercise or check your blood sugar.
Studies show both methods help patients control their disease better than trying to do it on their own. A 2014 study found a six-month diabetes coaching program helped lower patients' glucose levels. What's more, 73 percent of patients reported being satisfied with the program, which saved $812 in health care costs per patient from fewer doctor and ER visits.
Examples: Self-monitoring devices such as Withings Wireless Blood Pressure Monitor and AliveCor Heart Monitor; education programs such as CareSmarts (mhealth-solutions.com)
Beware: These devices are expensive — they can cost over $100 — and are usually not covered by insurance.
Best for: Hard-to-diagnose cases, exploring treatment options
How it works: Medical "detective" sites rely on the notion that the group is smarter than the individual. When you've got a medical mystery, these sites can aggregate a bank of experts to ID rare conditions. Or they tap into a network of peers suffering from similar ailments who give advice on symptoms and what remedies work — and don't. Some are free, while others urge you to offer a cash incentive if you need a case solved.
Examples: CrowdMed (crowdmed.com), PatientsLikeMe (patientslikeme.com)
Beware: Use these for ideas, not the final word. Steinhubl recommends getting a second or third opinion, but make sure it's with a doctor who can sit down with you and review your medical record, explain your options and weigh the pros and cons of treatment.
Best for: Stroke diagnosis
How it works: If someone suffers an ischemic stroke, in which a clot blocks blood flow to the brain, he or she may be eligible to receive a clot-busting drug such as tPA that restores blood flow, reducing the severity of the stroke and even reversing some of its effects. The catch: A patient first has to receive a diagnosis from a neurologist or other stroke expert, who may not be immediately available. Every minute that a stroke continues without treatment, the patient can lose 1.9 million brain cells. Telestroke immediately connects patients in ERs with a neurologist who "sees" the patient via videoconference and can access brain-imaging scans.
Example: Telestroke program (available in hospitals nationwide)
Beware: The patient has only a few hours to get the clot-busting stroke drug for it to be effective, so the technology must be accessed quickly to make a difference.
6. Fitness devices
Best for: Tracking diet and exercise, injury rehabilitation
How they work: Wear these wristband devices and they count your steps, monitor sleep patterns and allow you to log your food intake and workouts. A newer use: They're now integrated in post-injury rehab programs. After a bike accident left him with a brain injury, Brett Bullington, 61, of Palo Alto, Calif., couldn't walk or speak and was having trouble using his left hand. He set alerts on his Jawbone UP device to remind him to do physical therapy exercises, and began setting step goals. Now, after just two years of recovery, he walks 30 miles a week.
By having patients wear a device that measures their daily steps, "we can monitor their progress by watching their activity level and tweak care accordingly," says George Fulk, associate professor in the physical therapy department at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.
Examples: FitBit Flex, Jawbone UP, Nike+ FuelBand
Beware: Don't count on these devices to change your habits long term. Research shows after six months, a third of users have stowed these in a drawer. They also may not be accurate in measuring calorie needs, says Steinhubl.
7. Virtual doctors
Best for: On-demand appointments
How they work: You've got a rash and you can't get an appointment with your regular doctor until next week, or you're on vacation and you've got the flu. For times like these, an on-demand appointment can be a lifesaver. For a fee ($40 for a 15-minute appointment), you arrange for an e-visit with a doctor or nurse, often within minutes. Many are available 24/7. Some, like AppVisit, will connect you with your existing provider; others connect you with a board-certified doctor in another locale.
Examples: MDLIVE (mdlive.com), AppVisit (appmedicine.com), Doctor on Demand (doctorondemand.com)
Beware: "In the right situation, these are a great solution," Steinhubl says. "But there is concern that the provider has pressure to do something and may overtreat symptoms" — such as writing a prescription when all you might need is bed rest and fluids.
8. Virtual counseling
Best for: Mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
How it works: Traditional therapy is face-to-face, but virtual counseling connects you with your doctor via a computer screen. Veterans (who often have trouble talking about personal issues) or rural residents are two groups that may benefit the most, says Elizabeth Brooks, who researches virtual mental health services.
Julie Abbot Murphy, 57, of McLean, Va., used Virtual Therapy Connect to talk over her daughter's struggle with an eating disorder. "Though I prefer in-person counseling, the flexible nature of virtual therapy is such a bonus. It's extremely convenient to have this option when my time is limited or during inclement weather," she says.
Examples: VA Telehealth Services, Virtual Therapy Connect (virtualtherapyconnect.com), Breakthrough Behavioral (breakthrough.com)
Beware: The services can be hard to find, but more health care plans are incorporating virtual mental health services into their programs.
Best for: Rural residents who need a specialty doctor
How it works: This is different from an on-demand doctor appointment, which is usually done from home. For this service, patients travel to a clinic, which then connects them through videoconferencing to a specialist anywhere in the state, explains Eric Brown, president and CEO of California Telehealth Network. That's what makes it especially good for underserved populations: They can get treated in their own community and see specialists they may otherwise have to wait months to see, he says.
Examples: Find centers on the Health Resources and Service Administration website (hrsa.gov/ruralhealth/about/telehealth).
Beware: The technology can't do it all. In some instances, such as a broken bone, hands-on treatment is needed.