Healthcare has had a tumultuous few years, with changes coming from virtually every corner: technology, politics, and the economy. All of these changes have been made in an effort to correct existing problems, but they have also made healthcare more complicated for patients. Doctor/patient relationships have changed, the insurance system has changed, and patients are struggling to navigate the new environment.

"The health care bureaucracy is crippling," Elsa Newmyer, 62, told the New York Times earlier this year. She is a retired teacher who had a surgery that went wrong and is now dealing with mountains of bills. "There are lots of layers to get to the right person. So you end up paying bills just because you've run out of energy."

A new wave of innovative firms are aiming to demystify the system for patients. Digital healthcare platforms and providers have begun to take a look at how technology and the internet can be used to empower patients and enhance their relationships with their doctors. These are a few avenues entrepreneurs are pursuing:

The Rise of Digital Health Platforms

The changing healthcare landscape has caused some unintended consequences that make traditional care inconvenient for patients. Doctors' offices work to move appointments along quickly. The intention comes from a good place - seeing as many patients as possible means a doctor has the chance to help more people. But when the process is rushed, patients lose out on the opportunity to ask important questions and learn from their physician.

Dr. Michael Warner, Chief Medical Officer of Ask The Doctor, shares why this is a problem. "Historically, doctors have been educators and advisors, helping patients understand the human body and its inner workings. As modern medicine has evolved doctors have become transactionalists rather than trusted advisors. A transactionalist is adept at performing a task such as writing a prescription, ordering a test, or referring you to a specialist. But the needs of patients who simply want to ask questions and receive thoughtful answers are not met by this current model of doctor-patient interaction."

Digital health platforms aim to solve that problem by providing customized medical advice from doctors via the internet. This is a growing trend. Technology can easily facilitate personal interactions with a medical professional without the need to go to an office and wait in a line.

Scheduling

A difficult problem plaguing the industry is lengthy wait times for nonemergency care. Scheduling a distant appointment for a question a patient has today is not convenient. If a patient has already seen their doctor and has important follow-up questions, they may have to wait weeks before being able to ask them.

This is where digital health companies can help patients have more timely access to qualified medical advice. Instead of having to head to the doctor's office they can ask a digital health provider immediately, often with fast or instantaneous response times. A report from Accenture on customer loyalty in healthcare showed that 61% of patients will switch providers if it means they are able to get an appointment faster.

Digital health platforms are able to provide this kind of accessibility by eliminating the typical logistics involved with office visits. A doctor on a digital health platform can determine how many questions she/he can answer in a given day and the platform can direct questions to doctors based on availability to decrease the wait for an answer. By opening up patient questions to a network of physicians these platforms solve one aspect of the scheduling problem.

Leveraging Patient Data to Improve Care

Under the current system, any question asked of a physician rarely gets documented in a way that can help improve care for future patients. With the rising importance of data in every aspect of our lives, it does not make sense that information as important as personal health data is not recorded more effectively.

With anonymity at the core of many digital healthcare experiences, anonymous patient data can be used more readily than information that is tied to one patient's medical records. This data can then be shared with interested parties like governments, disease control organizations, and pharmaceutical companies to help meet patient needs that were previously unrecognized. By identifying trends and informing care providers, this kind of data could help the industry provide care based on actual needs in the market.

The Outcome Economy

Another Accenture report on Healthcare IT trends details how the Outcome Economy is driving adoption for digital healthcare. With a growing number of patients using hardware and software combinations like wearables to track fitness, and sleep apps to track sleep quality, the focus is shifting from evaluation to results. The report notes, "Connected hardware is becoming a platform for patient engagement and clinical collaboration."

These advances in hardware are making it easier for patients to gather information about their health and easily share it with physicians. There are also a growing number of products that healthcare providers are giving patients to track vitals in real time at clinical scales. These tools are upgrading the quality of care for patients and driving the importance of digital healthcare solutions.

With more and more entrants into the digital healthcare space, we may begin to see very positive changes to the state of healthcare overall. The key is continuing to ask how technology can solve unique problems to help everyone stay healthy. In doing so it may be possible to have a better-informed populace that focuses on preventative and early response care, limiting the overall burden of healthcare costs for society.

Published on: Dec 5, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.