Health care is changing. For some, this is cause for celebration: A safer, convenient, more efficient system is upon us. For others, the end is nigh: impossibly demanding patients, crushing bureaucracy, and a once sacred relationship desecrated by invasive technology.

The ascent of digital health technologies is an important driver of health care change, yet its impact is still indeterminate. Any technology that empowers patients as well as physicians will improve patients’ health outcomes. Or so it might seem. The truth is more nuanced: Some services will improve outcomes, others won’t. Fitting Fitbits into our current system is like inserting the wrong key into a lock: It might go in, but it doesn’t open anything. Fortunately, some keys are opening doors to better care – doors that that we’ve never entered – but finding the right ones is laborious. Dr. Joe Kvedar is here to help.

As a physician leader who straddles the gap between physician-centered and consumer-centered health care, Dr. Kvedar has spent his career leveraging technology to improve care delivery for both. In his new book, “ The Internet of Healthy Things ,” he shares what he has learned. He uses numerous examples from his experience as a physician and pioneer in digital health care with Partners HealthCare , Boston, delving deeply into the business of health care and the behavioral habits of patients.

As he notes, Partners was “prescient” in the health care landscape, introducing video conferencing in the 1990s, second opinions on the Internet in 2001, and texting as a tool for health messaging in 2008. He asks now: “What are the connected health devices and applications that our clinicians will be using in 5-10 years?” Then he uses his acumen and research to answer his own question. The ensuing chapters are more prescriptive than predictive, however. None of us knows where health care will be in 10 years, but we should think about where it ought to be.

Whether you chart on an Apple Watch or on paper, this discussion is important to you. Physicians are key players in determining where and how medicine is practiced, and we need to understand relevant risks and benefits to make the right decisions.

Confusing the matter is that desired outcomes are not absolute but relative. It depends on the frame of reference. Patients measure outcomes with service, payers with cost, and we physicians with quality. Which measurement is correct? How can we know if a remote monitoring device is worthwhile if we can’t agree on what it delivers? Is it simply sending home “the sicker even quicker?” Does a Big Pharma beyond-the-pill app really only increase consumption of the costliest medications or create more affordable alternatives?

Technologies that increase access to services such as live chat, messaging, and monitoring may be preferred by patients, but physicians see them as piling on to backbreaking loads. More artificial intelligence is needed to enable these services without requiring physician work. We need driverless health care.

Keeping patients involved has a whole other set of requirements. The tools must be easy, the information personal, the data actionable, and its use Candy-Crush-Saga addictive. This is no small feat, but there is hope.

Partner’s Text 2 Move program, which Dr. Kvedar describes as the “gold standard of what learning about your consumer means,” showed that highly personalized, targeted text messages could have a significant impact on patients’ behavior and health. It is just this type of technology that many are relentlessly pursuing to deliver care more effectively.

Dr. Kvedar devotes significant attention to the patient/consumer experience in a thoughtful, complex manner. Rather than elevate or denigrate the rise of the engaged patient, he examines this phenomenon through several lenses, addressing equally the concerns of practicing physicians and health care entrepreneurs. Nearly 20 years ago, Regina Herzlinger of Harvard Business School, Boston, predicted the rise of health care consumerism. Retail clinics, direct-to-consumer services, and the “Yelpification” of health care are signals that we’ve arrived.

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, Yogi Berra warned us. The book’s mention of Theranos , the failing pinprick blood lab company founded by celebrity Stanford student Elizabeth Holmes, is an example of how risky it is to place bets on where we are headed and how quickly we will get there. DIY at-home labs are further off than they appeared, and that is the hazard of any such books: it is difficult to see more than what’s just in front of us.

Ultimately, Dr. Kvedar’s message is as realistic as it is optimistic: “The same information that could help drive healthcare costs down can be used to create highly individualized programs that will help people stay healthier and happier.” But we should resist the urge to ask “Are we there yet?” No. We’ve a ways to go.

Dr. Benabio is a partner physician in the department of dermatology of the Southern California Permanente Group in San Diego and a volunteer clinical assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at


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