Mobile phones. Laptops. iphones. Satnav as standard. Smart refrigerators. Wearables. Technological advancement is now a part of our daily life.
While the backdrop of limited NHS finance and resources is pushing the use of tech to improve efficiencies and access to information for clinicians, we can no longer ignore the fact that patient-centred healthcare is here. Digital technologies are increasingly being adopted to empower patients to take care of themselves.
Patients or health consumers have increasing levels of access to information, and they are starting to become better informed and make decisions about their own health. Online forums and social media are proliferating and they are being used to build online health networks, linking patients, carers and clinicians who have a common interest in a condition.
I agree with those who say that the key to our future is understanding what patients need and want and adapting our model to fit that. We already know that walk-in patients will move to a different pharmacy now if it meets a specific need or is more convenient, so what’s going to differentiate your offering? What’s going to engage your patients and keep them with you? More importantly, how are you going to engage your tech-savvy patients? All that customer feedback we have to collect should be used to explore what our own patients want, so we can design our offer in line with that feedback. Let’s stop pretending we know what they want, because we ‘know’.
I’m already onboard with those in the sector who are moving with the times and engaging with social networks and new media. Local community-based online forums can act as a way for patients to interact with other patients. They’re an opportunity to provide high quality support and information, to signpost, and most importantly for my business, to promote pharmacy services and deliver key messages to support healthier lives.
It’s not enough any more to have a stand-alone website. Adding value to healthcare consumers and patients, using the media they perceive delivers them value, and use, will be key to retaining them. Online patient engagement, at all sorts of levels, can no longer be ignored. Your suppliers are doing it, so who better to provide that vital community link and cover that expensive last mile to the patient/consumer than a local community-based business that everyone likes already.
We need to go further. Using social media simply to promote activity or share information, just being present, is itself a lost opportunity. Patients want convenience, accessibility and affordable personalised services and they increasingly want services, including healthcare, to fit their lifestyle. Wearables like Fitbit have been around for a while, but expect an explosion in remote consultations (online and onscreen), tech platformed detection and screening devices like Alivecor, and remote monitoring for all kinds of long-term conditions using mobile technologies, apps and devices, enabling patients to track their own health status or condition via something as everyday as a watch or a ring. These things are here now, and they are being used by patients of all ages.
So while patients have had access to blood pressure and weight machines in pharmacies for ever, in the very near future they will be able to see their own health data, including heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and sleep patterns in real time on their mobile phone. The big question is whether pharmacy can take advantage of these opportunities to support patients to achieve their health goals, through the creation of new private services. I can’t see these things being commissioned any time soon.
The NHS is under unprecedented pressure. Prevention of ill health is the key to the future. Everyone, apart from Government Ministers who won’t fund it, seems to agree. Empowering patients to self-care supported by new technology, with advice in their community from their community pharmacist, could be key to an opportunity which benefits us all.
I read lots in the press about how, in the near future, technology will support evidence-based prescribing, long-term condition management, medicines optimisation, adherence and patient safety. But I think we should start with the opportunities here now, that our patients and the public are already buying into and using. You never know, that might be the right way to move pharmacy into the digital age.