A randomized trial published last month in JAMA found that sending lifestyle change text messages to patients with coronary artery disease improved smoking cessation rates, increased physical activity, and reduced other cardiovascular risk factors. After only 6 months, the texted group had lower low-density lipoprotein, systolic blood pressure, and body mass index measurements than the usual care group. This was an impressive finding, but an unsettling one, since I had just finished reading an American College of Physicians position paper on the use of telemedicine in primary care settings. Taken together, these publications suggest that virtual care technologies, broadly defined, could make many in-person clinical encounters unnecessary. That's good for patient convenience, but potentially threatens one of the best parts about practicing family medicine: seeing patients in person.
Health information technology (IT), as embodied in electronic medical record systems that have replaced paper charts in most family practices, has thus far been a mixed blessing for our specialty. But what about tech beyond traditional health IT? The technology "tactic team" of Family Medicine for America's Health published a special article in Family Medicine that described strategies for family physicians to utilize an array of evolving technologies to strengthen therapeutic relationships and improve outcomes:
1) Smartphone apps and wearable devices that capture data about patients' health habits and give feedback to influence their behavior
2) Point-of-care musculoskeletal ultrasound
3) Web-based communication for "virtual" hospital rounding and specialist consultations
4) Web-based videos to provide patient and professional education
Although all of these initiatives have great potential to benefit patients, many are being developed in silos without leadership or input from family physicians. Therefore, the paper's authors proposed that Family Medicine for America's Health work to integrate these overlapping efforts into "a united front improving health IT and other technologies for the specialty."
Key opportunities for family physicians "to capitalize on our collective strengths" in the near future include partnering with developers to create health IT tools that improve clinical outcomes (rather than merely serving administrative or billing functions); supporting primary care-centric data models; participating in the development of primary care quality measures; and collaborating with patient and consumer organizations locally and nationally to identify and promote patient- and family-centered technology solutions that complement the vital functions of family medicine.