The human brain has a natural ability to pay attention only to the relevant things in our environment, and to filter out the inconsequential. This is due to the work of the “salience network,” which laser-focuses our attention right where it needs to be. For instance, as I write this, I know the washing machine is on two rooms away. I can hear it, and will probably have a moment of awareness when it shuts off, but it is not part of my conscious thought process and does not distract me from the task at hand.
What does this have to do with patient engagement and self-serve technology? Even a well-functioning salience network can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of health data available to us--through sensor-based wearable mobile technology, we can monitor (among other metrics) our heart rate, body temperature, blood sugar, blood pressure, and sleep patterns. And when there is too much information available to us---too much raw data---we tend to shut down: we can’t assimilate it all, so there’s a real risk of assimilating none at all.
It’s kind of like going to a restaurant and being handed a menu that has too many sections, and too many choices within each section. It can be hard to hone in on the few items that have the best chance of satisfying whatever food we may be craving on that particular day.
This potential information overload does not just affect consumers of health care; in a survey
conducted the by the market research firm Black Book, 94% percent of physicians find the avalanche of digital health data “overwhelming, redundant and unlikely to make a clinical difference.”
As wearables are here to stay, the question is how to make the data they provide actionable, and therefore empowering. The answer may lie in an approach reminiscent of a simpler time: a face-to-face conversation between doctor and patient, in which they mutually decide what health metrics are important to track, at what frequency, and by what digital tool. And---most importantly---they should agree to a plan how the data will be used to strengthen their clinical connection.
Technology doesn’t ever go backwards, nor should it. And wearables do provide us with valuable information that can lead to better health outcomes. But in adopting these new and increasingly sophisticated technologies, we shouldn’t abandon what has worked well for millennia: a real conversation