Physicians, Patients Embrace Technology in Medicine

Brenda Goodman, MA

September 22, 2014

Technology is quickly changing many aspects of medicine, giving patients more power to take charge of their healthcare.

These changes are being embraced by many patients and physicians alike, a new survey has found.

The findings are part of the WebMD/Medscape Digital Technology Survey, which included more than 1100 patients and 1400 health professionals, including 827 physicians. Questions focused on issues related to the evolution of medical care, including smartphones to assist in the diagnostic process, procedure costs, the right to review medical records, radiation risks from imaging tests, and genetic testing.

Eric Topol, MD, editor-in-chief of Medscape and chief academic officer of Scripps Health, said the report is unique. There hasn't been a large survey that's asked the same questions of clinicians and patients.

"Technology is really democratizing all aspects of the doctor's visit," Dr. Topol said.

Today, patients can use smartphones to track their blood glucose levels. And soon, apps and accessories may be available that check cholesterol or track the heart's electrical activity.

Instead of the doctor's office or lab being a place to begin gathering information about their health, patients could soon be showing up for check-ups with the basics already in hand.

In the survey:

  • A majority of both groups — 84% of patients and 69% of physicians — said they embrace technology to enhance and aid the diagnostic process

  • Both groups — 64% of patients and 63% of physicians — agreed that the smartphone can be a useful diagnostic tool in regard to blood tests

  • About 40% of patients liked the idea of using technology to identify health concerns without a trip to the doctor, while only 17% of physicians endorsed that method.

More physicians, 62%, said they might be willing to accept the results of blood tests taken on smartphones. Internal medicine specialists were slightly more open to the idea than family medicine practitioners or pediatricians.

About half of physicians overall said they'd be willing to accept information from a patient's smartphone in place of an office visit to diagnose a suspicious skin problem. Sixty-one percent said they'd accept smartphone data on heart rate and rhythm. Only 30% said they'd take smartphone information in place of an eye exam, and 32% indicated they'd accept smartphone information instead of an ear exam.

Dr. Topol said in the clinical practice of tomorrow, physicians will primarily become interpreters of information who help guide treatment decisions. In that setting, patient-generated information has the potential to make doctors' lives a lot easier, he added.

Areas Where Both Sides Agree

In addition to the use of new technologies, there were other aspects of healthcare where physicians and patients were on the same page.

Nearly 100% of both groups said patients should have the right to know the full cost of a medical procedure before they decide whether to have it. The vast majority of patients and physicians also said patients should have access to the prices charged by different healthcare providers for the same medical procedure so they could comparison shop. Only about half of doctors said they were prepared to compete on the basis of cost, though.

And nearly all patients and physicians said they support the use of genetic testing to, for example, diagnose problems in a fetus, identify and treat diseases, or spot drug side effects.

Issues Where Physicians and Patients Differ

Confusion crept in, though, when questions turned to medical records, physical exams, and radiation risks.

Nearly all physicians and patients agreed that patients have a right to review their medical records. But neither group seemed to be sure who medical records belong to. About half of consumers — 54% — believe they own their medical records, while 39% of doctors said physicians own the records they keep on patients.

This confusion is understandable given the legal complexities. Under the law, physicians and the practices they work for "own" the physical records, but the information contained in them is considered to be the patient's property. Both federal and state laws give patients the right to access and inspect their medical records, usually within 30 days of a written request for them.

Dr. Topol said he thinks patients need to make a habit of obtaining their own copies.

"Patients should be owning their medical records," he said. Owning them and keeping them, he added.

A majority of patients and physicians say that annual physical exams are necessary.

Dr. Topol said that's a surprise since recent guidelines have questioned the need to do annual physical exams. Studies show that physicals, and the medical tests that go along with them, may actually set patients up for net harm, because they lead to more tests and more procedures, many of which prove to be unnecessary.

Differences also surfaced around the issue of radiation risks.

Only 19% of patients said they were very concerned about radiation exposure from imaging tests like X-rays, mammograms, and angiograms, while 38% of patients said they were not concerned. In contrast, 32% of physicians said they were very concerned about radiation risks to patients, and a minority said they were not concerned.

"Consumers are not aware of the radiation-exposure issue enough — that's a big surprise from the survey," Dr. Topol said. Patients need to be educated about the risks of certain kinds of imaging tests, he added.

The survey was conducted on Medscape.com and WebMD.com during separate 2-week periods in August and September 2014, with 1406 and 1102 respondents respectively. On Medscape, respondents were physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, physician assistants, and medical students.

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