Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted an interesting shift in the delivery of patient care: digital health. The significant increase in demand for virtual and/or remote options to receive care and medical support due to limited in-person interactions has shone the spotlight on the need to explore how to properly and most effectively implement this new option.
Even in a post-pandemic world, it is likely that aspects of how we have worked and lived in the pandemic will remain, including digital health. This option for care comes with benefits and drawbacks for patients, including those with heart valve disease, which we all need to understand and navigate to ensure the most appropriate and adequate care is being received.
Digital health encompasses many things – from video calls with your clinician or getting emailed your prescription, to more complex interactions where a healthcare team may use technology to monitor your health or provide a diagnosis remotely. More specifically, digital health includes telemedicine, telehealth, mobile health and remote patient monitoring. Here’s a look at what each of these includes:
For heart valve disease patients, digital health options have afforded an opportunity to easily access a health care team, which can offer time efficiencies and improved health outcomes by increasing opportunities for check-ins and monitoring. For those who are elderly and/or who face on-going challenges, digital health options have helped to eliminate some of the traditional barriers to care, such as transportation to appointments, physical ability to get to appointments, or even the inability to get to a specific geographic location. In this sense, digital health serves as a way to provide care where some traditional factors would otherwise hinder it.
Digital health options also provide opportunities to better monitor cardiovascular health, which could result in being able to identify serious health changes or trends that require medical attention. Wearable devices that track vital signs like heart rate, apps that help with monitoring physical activity, as well as other technologies a health care team may recommend, can help patients be proactive with their health by noticing significant changes early on.
To further support you in tracking your health and preparing for important conversations with your healthcare team, HVV Canada has various resources available on our website for you to use. Our downloadable Symptom Tracker is a tool that helps you monitor your symptoms and will provide a better understanding of trends in your health. We also have a downloadable Consultation Guide that can aid in preparing you for doctor appointments by suggesting questions you may want to ask your healthcare team, as well as questions they may ask you. Both of these resources can be used alongside virtual or telephone appointments.
There are also some drawbacks to digital health that patients should consider. As individuals age, eyesight or hearing impairment, levels of dexterity, and cognitive function can hinder the ability someone has to effectively navigate and benefit from telemedicine and telehealth. In these cases, this digital approach can add inequities to access to care instead of help improve them.
For heart valve disease patients, digital health is not a full replacement for checkups, tests and monitoring that often needs to be done in person, like echocardiograms. Further, many indicators of serious changes to your condition will be noted in symptoms you experience that digital technology may not track (i.e. feeling fatigued, dizziness, chest pain, etc.). In this case, and while telemedicine like virtual appoints can be helpful, the use of digital tracking alone without in-person consultation with a care team may not be relevant or fully effective for heart valve disease patients.
When it comes to heart valve disease, many patients are in the monitoring stage of their diagnosis. In these circumstances, virtual appointments, sharing digital data with a healthcare team, or getting prescriptions via online patient portals is beneficial and certainly a great option.
However, and perhaps most important to keep in mind, is that time is of the essence when it comes to treating heart valve disease. Digital tracking or appointments, especially with the symptoms of heart valve disease that are not always obvious or detectable via non-medical technology, are not 100% comprehensive. If your symptoms have changed or worsened, it is crucial for you to immediately seek in-person medical attention.
More broadly, digital health is not a one-size-fits-all. Its effectiveness is dependent on patient capabilities and access, as well as the nature of their condition and diagnosis. If you are uncomfortable with digital health options, it is important to voice this concern to your doctor or health care team so that a more appropriate care plan can be put in place.
There is no denying that the benefits of digital health can be a crucial element to the future of health care and can greatly add to improved patient experiences and outcomes, and it will likely be around and become more routine post-pandemic. As we go forward, we must ensure that it is implemented in a way that is fair and considerate of the patient ultimately using it, to facilitate better patient experiences and outcomes.