Docs at Odds with Patients in Use of Digital Health Tech

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Physicians and consumers differ significantly and broadly in their views about emerging medical technology, with more enthusiasm and support expressed by consumers rather than clinicians.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey of more than 1,400 providers and 1,100 consumers aimed at assessing their attitudes toward such tools as smartphones, genetic testing, privacy, and patient-accessible electronic health records.

Results of the survey, published last week in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, show that consumers prefer new technologies for a medical diagnosis (39.66 percent) compared with providers (13.8 percent), with more providers (27.95 percent) than consumers (15.88 percent) reporting feeling uneasy about using technology for a diagnosis.

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“Consumers are much more ready to embrace digital technology than physicians,” says Eric Topol, M.D., co-author of the study and chief academic officer of Scripps Health in San Diego. “Doctors are a little more conservative and consumers are more tech oriented.”

Topol believes what makes this survey unique is it examines the views for both doctors and consumers. Typically, he says, these kinds of surveys are targeted at one or the other. “This is one of the first surveys ever conducted where it asks both doctors and consumers the same questions,” according to Topol.

“The sensitive issue of ownership and access to medical records, where a large gap between consumer and provider expectations exists despite recent clinical validation of transparency, requires considerable further attention,” states the study. “As medicine gets increasingly digitized, the forces favoring democratization will likely be intensified.”

At the heart of this digital medical revolution, Topol argues, is a fundamental shift in who accesses and “owns” medical data and health information—a transfer of power from doctors to consumers. For the benefits of digital medicine to be fully realized, patients must own their medical data, according to Topol, who observes that in the survey there was strong support from consumers wanting to own their data. At the same time, physicians and medical students felt that patients already owned their medical record (39.1 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively).

“This whole issue of ownership of records is unresolved,” Topol says. “Access to information just isn’t enough. Access to information doesn’t mean you can control your data. Ownership is really the only way forward that makes sense. Owning your record as an individual should be considered a civil right. It’s preposterous that doctors think that because they set up the record they own it.”

Among providers, 90.33 percent were concerned that patients would experience “anxiety” after accessing health records, and 81.95 percent felt it would lead to requests for unnecessary medical evaluations, but only 34.30 percent and 24.59 percent of consumers expressed the same concerns, respectively.

Topol says multiple studies have shown that this supposed consumer anxiety over having access to medical records is a myth. “Once patients get their access it actually quells anxiety rather than fosters it, which is really comforting,” he says. “Doctors are not especially enamored by smart patients. Well, watch out because these patients are going to get damn smart because they are going to have access to their data. That’s why there needs to be a reset of this information symmetry.” 

One area where both providers and consumers are in agreement is in their support of genetic testing for various purposes, with providers (87.77 percent) being more likely than consumers (73.14 percent) to support genetic testing.

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