What Healthcare's "Gutenberg Moment" Needs to be Sustainable

Eric Topol’s The Patient Will See You Now: The Future Is In Your Hands describes medicine today as having a “Gutenberg moment.” Printing press technology democratized learning, driving printing costs down while improving access to texts across different economic classes. Smartphones are today’s printing press for medicine, where patients are empowered simply through better access to take charge of health care appointments, physiological monitoring, and access to medical knowledge.

Topol is absolutely right that increased smartphone use will increase access to care and good information. According to a Pew Research report 64% of Americans own a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011. Additionally, the majority of smartphone owners (67%) have used their phones to look up health condition information.

However, as medicine’s “Gutenberg moment” unfolds, substantial educational and cultural structures need to be established for patients and clinicians alike. Printing presses might have made books more widely available, but people needed to learn how to read before the technology could truly be impactful. Similarly, technology might be democratizing healthcare, but people need to know how to work with those new dynamics.


Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, executive director of the Digital Health department and a practicing physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, is trying to implement tactics that reduce the communication gap between patients and clinicians.

Beyond her own efforts to arm people with relevant, timely, and important information through appearances on KING 5 News or on her social media platforms, one of the developments Dr. Swanson has driven at Seattle Children’s has been Virtual Handshake, a mobile platform designed to educate perspective patients and their families before, during, and after clinical visits. The application has been used between referring doctors and Seattle Children’s surgeons & providers and is filled with information, including videos from patients’ surgeons and educational documents about the child’s condition. Its goal is to educate patients, arming them with knowledge to better engage and build a trusting relationship between them and their caregiving team.

Seattle Children’s Digital Health recently reported on some of the preliminary results from their initial pilot of Virtual Handshake. Of the 49 families who enrolled in the trial, more than half signed on to the platform. 90% of those who signed on watched the video from their referred surgeon. Two new parents of twins declined to take part in the pilot, likely because they were already overwhelmed with the challenges of coping with caring for their children. Another mother canceled the appointment with her surgeon, but used the application to gain access to the information it provided.

The value of Virtual Handshake is in its digitization of processes. Task-oriented clinical pathways developed to ensure quality of health care during a standard care process require information describing the patients expected care course to be shared. Virtual Handshake takes the information clinicians repeat to patients during standard clinical work and moves it into another medium. “It takes the de-personalized element out of the very personal clinical visit,” says Dr. Swanson. Reducing clinical redundancies while ensuring patients are informed enhances the clinical visit in numerous ways. It also advances a renegotiated relationship between patients and providers, making patients better informed, more accountable, and more likely to collaborate constructively with their healthcare team.

Those who engaged with the Virtual Handshake pilot accessed the critical information describing their child’s care pre and post appointment, making clinical visits that much more productive. Democratization of anything requires equal quality of information amongst all stakeholders. Healthcare providers and patients might not have the same sort of knowledge, but there are opportunities to share the extent of each party’s knowledge so that the outcome is most beneficial. This, in conjunction with mobile access through smartphones, further advances Topol’s “Guttenberg moment” in a way that ensures significant foundational structures are being built for the future of health care.

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