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Our next frontier: Digital medicine that delights

Sonia Samagh MD, MBA, Vice President, The Center for Digital Health, Optum Health

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Formalized in 2020, The Center for Digital Health seeks to increase access, reduce costs and improve outcomes while optimizing the experience of giving and receiving medical care.

The Center for Digital Health’s vision is realized through three key initiatives: building a common technology platform, digitally enabling our Care Delivery Organizations and Lines of Business, and building a new virtual medical group and virtual care team to deliver affordable high-quality care.

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The ecosystem of health care

Now more than ever, we know the future of health care depends on technology.

In this article, rather than praise a specific aspect of digital approaches (eg. telehealth, e-visits, electronic medical records [EMR], technology devices), I want to show the big picture of these solutions in health care—their potential to bring ease to patients and joy of practice to clinicians.

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Industry gone digital

As we set our sights on creating a digitally-optimized health ecosystem, it’s helpful to reframe our view by looking to parallel industries that have improved service to their clients through digital means.

Think of what banking typically provides since the advent of smartphones: depositing checks through an app, transferring money and paying bills. We don’t call those services “digital banking.”

Customers simply use the services they find most convenient and digital developers continue to innovate new and better ways to meet industry goals. It all falls under the heading of “banking.”

The physical bank is still available and at times necessary, but customers perform a majority of transactions with great trust and without the need to come to a physical location.

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The health experience

Suffering an illness or submitting to a screening test is challenging enough. But entering the same information on screen after screen into programs that do not communicate, or asking a patient to re-tell their story for the seventh time because clinical notes are difficult to access can be disheartening and dehumanizing.

The fragmented health care system and point solutions that are not connected across systems erode trust and the power of the patient and clinician relationship.

From the start of my career I observed the successes and failures of digital tools brought to us as patient and clinician solutions.

There had to be a better way to take advantage of the benefits of an tech-enabled world, where digital offers the clinicians and patients delightful, enjoyable experiences in line with other industries like banking and travel.

Now, as a leader at Optum’s Center for Digital Health, I have the opportunity to realize delight in medicine through new experiences.

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We are hard at work bringing the many digital tools at our fingertips into an environment that becomes our “way of being” rather than another tool in the toolkit.

The digital health ‘ecosystem’ becomes a growing, changing, system that adapts with us as we evolve in every part of our own health. 

Our plan

We have big goals and we want to continue to raise the bar for what we can achieve as technologies advance. Pleasing our clinicians and our patients will never be a static endeavor.

As The Optum Center for Digital Health, we will start by:

  1. Making digital solutions integrate so seamlessly into what we do that we no longer need to call it “digital health” but rather refer to it as simply well care.
  2. Solving administrative issues for the clinician so patient care can focus on our relationship with our patients and not the documentation.
  3. Investing in a health ecosystem where digital is in the fabric of high-quality care that can be delivered with a sense of ease. 
  4. Planning for a future when we make health care so convenient and individualized that we deliver wellness care as each of our patients define it for themselves.
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Now is the time

The pandemic has moved our comfort level with providing care outside of the four walls of an exam room. However, patients look to doctors and clinicians to guide them in the engagement with their own wellness, now possible through digital options.

A majority of patients, 55 percent according to a recent Accenture poll, agree that trusted health care professionals would motivate them to take a more active role in managing their health.1

Sixty-two percent of patients showed interest in receiving health notifications through digital channels, while 57 percent are open to using remote devices in the home to help manage chronic conditions.2

Patients have growing willingness to accept a new design in care, but faith in their doctors to lead is the key.

We are creating a world in which traditional “brick and mortar” activities can be completed in the comforts of our patient’s homes with remote physical exam devices, eAssistants in the home and mobile application (app)-deployed at-home lab services.

With the help of diagnostic tools, home monitoring for chronic conditions is at the point of making a big jump forward as well.

A point of maturity has been reached, ranging from the applications and devices available to mindsets of clinicians and patients; we are ready to evolve to our next step.

Delivering on our promise

Our mission now is to make good use of the enormous capacity of innovation and resources held by Optum and UnitedHealth Group.

As clinicians, our patients trust us. The government puts care for Medicare and Medicaid patients into our hands. Our country looks to us as a business to create solutions.

We are a physician-led organization, our motivation from the time we took the Hippocratic oath is better care for our patients, now more than ever.

Our culture is to empower our clinicians as change agents for a better future. Now is our time to guide the country towards the digitally-enabled future Optum is uniquely poised to create.

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  1.  Digital Health Consumer Survey 2020. Accenture. https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/health/leaders-make-recent-digital-health-gains-last. Published August 1, 2020. Accessed January 8, 2021. 
  2. Ibid
This publication is informational and for educational purposes for practitioners only. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Optum Care. The views and opinions expressed may change without notice. 
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