SAN FRANCISCO — Online consumer engagement has been around since social media took off, allowing companies to form meaningful relationships with customers through ongoing interactions. Led by marketing and sales departments, consumer engagement programs can mean that people spend 20 to 40 percent more money on that brand or company’s products.

Since health care entrepreneurship became “sexy,” people are consistently using the term “patient engagement” at health technology conferences. But what exactly does this mean? Like online consumer engagement, is it simply when a company maintains a relationship with a patient through technology?

Since this is health care and situations are often complicated, there is little consensus over the definition of a term that everyone is using.

The closest analog to traditional online consumer engagement is “meaningful use,” a standard set by the U.S. federal government that enables providers to earn incentive payments based on how much patients are using their electronic medical records (EMR) systems. In this case, 5 percent of patients must log into an electronic record and upload their data for a provider to earn a bonus.

However, this “ongoing relationship” starts and ends when a patient merely interacts with the technology, regardless of frequency of use or the value added to a patient’s life.

For patient engagement, there should be a more robust definition that includes positive health outcomes, where engagement encompasses interactions with technology that lead to some ancillary or direct health benefit.

At HealthBeat, this concept was discussed during a breakout session titled “Consumer Health Apps: Human Centered Design,” featuring Marco Della Torre, biomedical engineer and business development at Basis; Chris Hogg, a vice president of data science at Practice Fusion; Eric Bailey, chief experience officer at PokitDok; and moderated by Aimee Jungman, formerly of Frog Design.

All agreed that we do not need a single definition for patient engagement. According to Chris Hogg, “all terms out of health are terrible,” adding that “patient engagement is merely creating products that people want to use.”

However, Della Torre of Basis saw value in correlating product usage with positive outcomes. Unless providers can quantify behavior change and prove value, the troves of data collected by sensors and “engaged” patients is useless.

Even though they clearly disagreed over the definition and value of the term, the panelists did agree on one basic point: Patients today aren’t truly engaged with health technology or even with their own health.

This is the crux of a problem that we need to address before we can begin to understand patient engagement, empowerment, and how to use these relationships to fix a broken system.

Can we create persuasive technology to encourage patient engagement with the mere concept of their own health?

For example, when people are sick, we have a tendency to exhibit avoidant behavior (like taking “medication holidays” from prescription drugs.)

On the other hand, when we are healthy we don’t want to think about health, and companies have found it challenging to channel consumer interest toward something as innocuous as their own biometric data.

So next time we talk about patient engagement, let’s also consider how users relate to the concept of their own health and whether technology can be used to not only engage, but also advance positive health outcomes.

Photo: Chris Hogg of Practice Fusion. Photo credit: Michael O’Donnell/VentureBeat


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