Last week Boston was the site of the seventh annual Connected Health Symposium, bringing together 1,000 attendees, 100 speakers and 50 exhibitors to discuss how information technology could enable better health care by improving the communication among patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers.
The current state of the market was well represented among the exhibitors, who showed a variety of gizmos that would collect information on a patient at home and send it upstream to someone who could monitor anything from blood pressure to mental state. This was my first year at the symposium but veterans of previous events remarked that these systems had been available for years but that rollouts were still largely in the pilot stage. It sounded a bit like the Year of the LAN which computer industry pundits predicted for the good part of a decade before all computers did get networked together without anyone noticing. In the health care world the benefits of connectivity are becoming apparent in terms of outcomes, but the financial benefits are more diffused and may not necessarily accrue to the parties that are paying.
Those benefits were illustrated in a luncheon session sponsored by Robert Bosch Healthcare. While I usually avoid the sponsored sessions at most conferences - if I wanted a sales pitch I would talk to the vendor myself - I was glad a took a chance on this one. The Bosch people stayed in the background and let Sarah Pratt of Dartmouth Medical School and Gail Farrington of the Riverbend Community Mental Health Center present the results of a clinical trial of Bosch's Health Buddy in the treatment of psychiatric and co-morbid medical conditions with patients in a home setting.
The technology involved was very simple. The patients were provided with a Health Buddy unit (photo) that asked them some questions every day about their mental state and overall health. The results were sent over an ordinary phone line to a monitoring system. A missing response or answers that were out of range would trigger a phone call or a home visit. The researchers documented a reduction in emergency room visits which could lead to quantifiable cost savings, but what was equally compelling was the anecdotal evidence, including that from two patients who came to the conference and shared their stories. One of them suffered from depression and said that for the three days a week that he had a therapist appointment he would get out of bed and go, but for the other four days, logging into the Health Buddy was the one thing that made him get up. Indeed, some other data indicates that 95% of the phone calls that come into a health monitoring call center are "test" calls. Sometimes people just need someone to talk to. Conference organizer Joe Kvedar elaborated on this observation in his talk on Emotional Automation. Depending on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full, automated engagement mechanisms such as Tamaguchi and FarmVille are either interfering with our ability to bond with fellow humans or are filling an important need, but as Kvedar points out, systems like Karen the Virtual Coach can exhibit measurable improvements on things like adherence to exercise programs.
I'm a firm believer in real human-to-human interaction, hence SBR Health, but these automated systems do have a role to play. Stanford professor B.J. Fogg did a great job describing the science behind systems like Facebook and Twitter that engage people and change behavior.