What Happens When the Patient Becomes the Boss?

3 minute read

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.—Patients today have access to tools that allow them to know much more about their personal health than ever before—for better or for worse. Whether it’s the ability to look up clinical trials and new research or use wearable devices that track everything from steps to sleep quality, men and women can gather more information and bring more informed questions to their doctor. But is the medical community ready for it?

At Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm Health conference, medical leaders talked about how patients can become more empowered, and the obstacles they still face. “I would say the patient is not yet in the driver’s seat, but should be in the driver’s seat,” says Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the president and dean, of Morehouse School of Medicine. “Right now the disease is in the driver’s seat.”

Part of the reason for this, Rice says, is that doctors are not necessarily as well educated in the technology aspects of their job, and the ability to use multiple data sources to make decisions—even if patients are ready for that kind of care. To improve the modern doctor-patient relationship, more may need to be done to educate physicians. Rice says Morehouse is working to make sure physicians are exposed to technology much earlier, starting in medical school. Students right way learn how to use electronic medical records (which Rice says are in desperate need of an update) as well as how to embrace technology in their jobs—from basic electronics like laptops to social media. “We need them to be comfortable using technology,” she says.

Even medical professionals have learned about the need to take medical care into their own hands as patients. Dr. Eric Topol, the founder and director of Scripps Translational Science Institute, told the audience about the “nightmare-ish course” that happened to him in the following his knee surgery when his physician couldn’t figure out what was wrong (his wife ultimately diagnosed him after spending some time combing the Internet for answers).

But there’s also the benefit of having more control. Christi Shaw, the president of Lilly Bio-Medicines, talked about becoming the caregiver for her sister with multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in plasma cells. Though doctors told Shaw they were out of treatment options for her sister, Shaw contacted other medical experts and learned about a study of an un-approved drug in that could work. Her sister’s doctor was open to trying it, and it ultimately reduced her sister’s cancer significantly within one month, according to Shaw. Without her own research and persistence, her sister’s medical team wouldn’t have known about the drug in the first place.

“The science is exploding and it’s coming so fast at us, and we need to figure out how to harness it,” Shaw said.

Not all physicians may be ready for patients to take more ownership of their health and treatment plans, but the panelists agreed that medicine is moving in the direction of more educated and empowered patients. One way patients can improve their own treatment experiences, Shaw suggests, is by studying up before their doctors appointments and bringing their physicians specific questions to discuss during short appointments. One day, they may even be able to present doctors with data from wearable devices like fitness trackers and smartwatches, too.

“We need to embrace and cultivate that [people] are taking more charge of their care,” said Topol.

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