The Future of Patient Engagement: Security and Communications

By Sean Kelly, MD, emergency physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and chief medical officer at Imprivata, the healthcare IT security company.

The increasing number of health and fitness apps available to consumers is helping to lay the foundation of the future of patient engagement.

Devices that monitor heart rate, track caloric intake, and collect other bits of information are helping patients become more comfortable with understanding their health on a day-to-day basis. Over time, the hope is that these applications will enable more sophisticated medical processes, and patients will be able to self-administer various tests and diagnoses. This level of understanding and involvement with the care process can help patients make better-informed decisions about their overall health.

But, simply tracking and collecting all this information is not enough. To truly be effective and move the needle on patient engagement, these consumer devices and applications need to be able to send data (ideally in real time) to a patient’s medical record. This will give providers a more complete view, which translates into improved efficiency and better care.

Getting to this state is no small task, as it will require the industry to embrace, at least to some degree, the role of the Internet of Things in healthcare as well as technology integrations and interoperability between these systems.

But first, the industry must address security concerns and communications efficiency.

The recent spate of breaches across healthcare has heighted focus on IT security defenses and how organizations can safeguard protected health information (PHI) and other sensitive data. To encourage and foster patient engagement, privacy and security concerns must be addressed. Patients need to be assured that their information is safe and that they are not exposing PHI to the risk of fraud by sharing their health data with care providers.

In addition, care providers must be able to properly authenticate the identity of a patient associated with the information to avoid errors, inaccuracies, or possible HIPAA violations. Automated systems need to be in place so identity “follows” the patient data to establish a secure chain of trust and ensure the integrity of information from the time it’s collected to when it is entered into the patient’s record.

From the communications perspective, before patients are comfortable having PHI and other data sent automatically, they first need to be comfortable with manual electronic communications with providers (and vice versa). Meaningful Use Stage 2 mandates the use of “secure electronic messaging to communicate with patients on relevant health information.” The measure is that more than five percent of unique patients (or their authorized representatives) must send a message through a system that meets specified criteria to ensure it is secure.

The good news is, we are starting to see some progress in this area, with forward-thinking organizations like Lifespan in Rhode Island and Saint Mary’s in Connecticut giving their providers an easy-to-use but secure way of communicating electronically with patients, using a form factor that patients prefer (in this case, secure text messaging). The ability to more securely and efficiently deliver updates, care plan next steps, and other information to patients not only promotes engagement, but it increases the comfort level of providers in using electronic communications to interact with patients.

In the long run, the ability to leverage consumer apps and other technology to collect health data can be invaluable in improving care, increasing quality, and enhancing patient safety, all of which are increasingly being measured as key performance indicators in healthcare. This relies on patients feeling comfortable and secure using electronic communications tools, which is the first step to realizing the full potential of patient engagement.