This Just In: Patients Can Use the Internet Now.

Sometimes, the future arrives so swiftly that we don’t even notice the subtle revolutions unfolding before our eyes.

For years, the notion of patients searching for health information online was anathema to physicians. The slightest mention of patients as engaged consumers of health information would cue a noxious reflex from most providers, fueled, no doubt, by stereotypes of patients like these:

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As recently as 2013, when I interviewed for medical school, stated interests and curiosities in healthcare social media, e-health, and participatory medicine were best, bold propositions, and at worst, toxic taboos.

“Do me a favor,” one dean of admissions quipped, “When you’re a third-year on clerkships, you’ll meet the man who’s been convinced by a WebMD search that his toe pain is diagnostic for brain cancer. Spend 15 minutes with that guy, then come find me and let me know if you’re still an optimist about online resources as tools for patient empowerment and engagement.”

Fast forward to 2015, where I’m now a clinical-phase student on an outpatient pediatrics rotation, and I finally have an answer for that dean–though it’s probably not the one he expected. I’m still an optimist in the power of online communities and digital content to equip patients with the information they need to engage in their clinical-decision making, as equals, with their providers.

Actually, after the conversations and clinical interactions I’ve witnessed these past weeks on pediatrics, that optimism has never held more firm.

Figure 1. An adolescent seen one week earlier for an acute infection and prescribed antibiotics returns with unresolved infection. The physician makes a diagnosis of antibiotic treatment failure. As she studies the literature for an appropriate second-line treatment, the patient’s mother does a Google search on her phone–and suggests a finding of her own. The physician reviews it, confirms it, prescribes it. Snap.

Figure 2. A child who is seen frequently for recurrent febrile illnesses presents for a well-child visit. The child’s parent mentions having searched online and identified a periodic fever syndrome consistent with the child’s clinical history. The parent shares printouts of relevant patient education materials, academic review articles, and diagnostic manuals with the physician. The physician agrees with the parent’s impression, and makes the diagnosis. Snap, crackle.

Figure 3. A neonate with a congenital condition arrives for a new-patient evaluation. The patient’s mother admits she selected this physician based upon reviews and recommendations from a local online patient community for disease-specific support. At the visit’s conclusion, the mother impresses the physician when she suggests a prescription for ondansetron–a tip she found through, yes, an online patient community. Snap, crackle, and pop.

As a health technologies optimist and medical futurist, it’s evident I’ve been so focused looking ahead to the future that I’ve missed the simple reality: in subtle ways, it’s already arrived.

We used to see e-health as synonymous with WebMD, the digital quack doc where all differential diagnoses lead to cancer. We used to think too much information would break the patient, break the doctor-patient relationship, or worst of all, break the monopoly on expertise that gave our profession relevance. We were, clearly, misguided.

The patient’s access to communities and open-access platforms for online health information is breaking healthcare–but not as doctors once thought it would. Instead, it’s breaking hierarchies, allowing patients to contribute to differentials and suggest treatments as engaged participants on their care team. It’s breaking barriers, connecting patients to insights and innovations previously sealed beyond paywalls and subscriptions. And it’s breaking the metaphorical walls of isolation, bringing patients in touch with others who understand the experience of living with illness and navigating a complex health system.

And every evening, as I drive home from another day in medical school, I’m inspired by the resilience of children, the resourcefulness of their caregivers, and the realization that I’m blessed to be entering medicine at a time of profound transformation, revolution, and creative destruction.

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The eStudent: Nothing About Me, Without Me?

I recently had the wonderful privilege of being accepted to present at a conference on medical education. I’m excited; this is a first for me!

It also came with a less-than-wonderful ‘first’: the privilege of paying a hefty conference registration fee.

Now, I can appreciate that organizing a conference is an expensive endeavor. Venues cost. Staffers cost. Esteemed keynote speakers cost. I get that.

What I don’t get is how a conference on medical education can accurately reflect interests and engage stakeholders in medical education by pricing out the main recipients of medical education: students.

Sure enough, looking over this conference’s speakers list, students are scarce. Plenty of deans, administrators, clinician-educators, and research scholars, though. It’s a conference about learners, but without learners.

To be fair, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Last year, I was elated to see the AAMC webcast its Medical Education conference. With great interest, I watched. I learned. I chimed in via Twitter when the dialogue called for (more often, presumed) a student’s perception or perspective.

And then I rolled my eyes when the post-conference survey, to the question, “Which of the following describes your role?” failed to include the option, “Student.” That moment spoke volumes, and it said everything about the student’s role in educational innovation and curricular design.

This is the essence of the problem. As students, there has to be a bigger role for us in medical education than taking post-intervention comprehension assessments or filling out satisfaction surveys. There has to be, to draw upon clinical analogies, a shared decision making model that invites students’ values, goals, and habits throughout the design process. Medical education without student engagement makes about as much sense as patient care without patient involvement.

To give credit where it’s due, I’m lucky to attend an institution where the student voice is present from the inception of an educational design process. But my experiences on the national scale imply these are outliers, not norms, and that’s a fundamental flaw.

ePatients, as advocates for access to their clinical records and active involvement in their own care, have in recent years coined the moving message, “Nothing about me, without me.”

That’s the attitude we need in medical education. That’s what we have to aspire to, and advocate for. To be eStudents: learners who don’t just participate in and function within an educational ecosystem, but actively shape it.

Medicine, Live-Streamed?

MeerkatAs a health tech optimist, I’m constantly fascinated—and completely stumped—by the science of ‘viral’ ideas. What is it that makes some innovations emerge, ignite, and transform, while others stumble, sputter, and fade?

Take live-streaming, for example. The concept of broadcasting one’s first-person perspective in real-time isn’t a novel notion. It’s existed since the early 1990s, when tech pioneers like Steve Mann strapped on cameras and webcast their lives to the world. And, if you’re a millennial in medicine, it’s how you attended medical school.

So what makes Meerkat, the latest ‘app of the moment,’ matter? The short answer: simplicity.

Until now, live-streaming has been done by big institutions for big events: the State of the Union, Apple product reveals, March Madness games. Sure, casual users have YouTube or Vine, but the real-time element of a live-stream takes engagement a step further.

Meerkat now empowers you, the viewer, to become the broadcaster. Open the app, click ‘stream,’ and cast via a link that’s available on your Twitter feed. It’s intuitive, instant, and inexpensive—it’s Meerkat.

How might we leverage this real-time capacity to share our perspectives to enrich medicine?

To transfer knowledge. Take it from a medical student: conferences cost. A lot. An academic conference is a buffet of food for thought, but learners and patients are often left to catch the leftovers through tweets and news releases. Now imagine a future where every presentation, pitch, and panel is immediately available. Imagine a future where your audience isn’t just a room of conference-goers, but the global Twitterati. And imagine the impact that will have on the time to translate insights from bench to bedside.

To foster empathy. Too often, the communication gaps and patient-provider tensions in healthcare are rooted in a failure to understand the other’s experience. Live-streamers invite their audience to watch the world through their eyes, to witness the challenges they face daily, and to respond accordingly. What if providers could observe the barriers that prevent their patients from adhering to treatments? What if patients could see why their doctor seems distracted, or doesn’t have an answer to every question? With Meerkat, it’s possible, quite literally, to walk a mile in someone’s shoes.

To promote accountability. When the world’s watching, we sit up straight and put on our best behavior. The ability to (broad)cast public scrutiny on any individual is powerful—perhaps, too powerful. Whether or not we should put others under this spotlight, the indisputable truth is that we can. That alone should make hospitals and providers pay attention.

Let’s be realistic: Meerkat isn’t likely to be the next Twitter or Facebook; it’s too ephemeral, too public, and too inconspicuous to replace more established forms of public dialogue. But it does open opportunities to communicate visually and to communicate live. And in a discipline where many of our biggest problems are communication problems, that’s worth thinking about.