Doctor computer systemEvery so often, you get a light bulb moment where something previously foggy becomes crystal clear and brought sharply into focus. I came across a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, Personal Technology section.1 It looked at how teenagers viewed and used modern online environments and communication technologies often with a smartphone.  

It’s a common complaint that teenagers are addicted to smartphones (mind you so are some adults) but the way that they use them is not only creative, it can also be productive. Teenagers generally don’t read user manuals or need complex instructions; they have no fear and quickly figure out how to adapt the device and software to their specific needs. They also discuss with their friends (often through social media) what new tricks, adaptations and apps they can use to further their aims and ambitions. According to the article, only a small minority use email, many of them are security conscious and are wary about what they post in online forums. They are clearly smart when it comes to using digital technologies, so what can we learn from teenagers in our medical practice? 

They are far better than us at finding better ways of using modern digitally-based communications, and of course communication is at the core of our jobs. We are beginning to rate our healthcare professionals and facilities with sites such and perhaps this will provide better and more honest patient feedback to us.

Just think if we were to start off with a clean sheet and set up new systems from scratch. If banks and commercial companies can sell products over the Internet and use credit cards and other payments systems online, why can’t we in the medical profession use the same secure technologies? Transmission of results and appointments could be easily facilitated through similar systems. Or, it could be done by text messaging, though not every older person owns a mobile phone.

Approved and high quality evidence-based clinical information customised to a specific patient’s needs could be made available on national approved high quality websites and apps on a much wider scale than currently used. However there would have to be backup for those people who are not connected to the internet. More clinical follow up could be done through video call technologies such as Skype, preserving the more expensive face-to-face appointments for those that really need them. Easier sharing of electronic clinical records between more authorised healthcare personnel to avoid expensive and unnecessary duplication of effort is simple to do technically but seems harder to put into practice.

Organisations adopting new technologies seem to be leaner, more productive and effective. Can you imagine the effect of these same technologies if they were widely adopted throughout the healthcare sector in this country? Of course their impact would have to be measured in an evidence-based fashion and their cost effectiveness would have to be firmly demonstrated. 

So what is stopping this tidal wave of change sweeping the healthcare sector and NHS in particular? Well, we are always a conservative bunch and rightly so, but maybe we are too resistant to change.

  Maybe we should be learning from the teenagers and adopt their gung ho attitude to technological change. Don’t read manuals but start from a clean slate and just dive in and see what works. This could be within the organisation (for example a private Facebook page for staff) or better ways to reach out to patients. This can be done on an individual level, within a small department or a primary care practice and if successful could be rolled out further afield. Maybe the teenagers could be consultants to help us make these technological changes.

1. accessed 31st August 2014