5 Ways to Engage Patients in Digital Health: Part II

On a cold January afternoon, we stood shoulder to shoulder in the square like interlocking pieces of a puzzle, leaving no space for attacking police forces to infiltrate between us, as we chanted for the ousting of Egypt’s standing President of 30 years. I heard a sudden “Thump!” and felt the negative pressure of the grey-haired man standing beside me as he fell to the ground, losing his breath to asphyxiation by the ghastly tear gas.

I saw then what would be my most vivid memory of the revolution: As if it were the action of a magical wand, the crowd swiftly split creating a human tunnel that allowed a paramedic on a motorbike to penetrate the endless crowds, pick up the fallen rebel, and rush him back into the medical tent on the other side of the historic Tahrir Square.

What baffled me was comparing that smooth maneuver to the countless ambulance vehicles that get stuck for hours in Cairo’s traffic. Why did the crowd cooperate so smoothly in this instance? And how could a physician with basic training and simple medical tools in a tent, be more effective than the doctors of our prestigious University Hospital?

Back in the medical tent, operations ran like clockwork: Patients were brought in, received treatment, and either left on their feet or were transferred to a public hospital. Volunteers rushed to provide the man with CPR and quickly administered Aminophylline, but we stood and watched as the man’s rapid shallow breathing gradually slowed down and faded out.  While death was considered a daily routine in the hospital, it was a peak of emotional intensity in the medical tent.

It struck me then, that the patient here was simply one of us – we were beyond scrubs and gowns. Empathy, as it turns out, was what transformed us from cold hospital scientists to passionate revolutionary activists. It’s no surprise that it is the key element behind the most inspired, disruptive and viable designs.

3 years later, disgruntled with the health care system and fascinated by innovation, I moved to San Francisco to get involved in a different kind of movement: The Digital Health Revolution. Are people really willing to engage with new health solutions? I was determined to find out.

As soon as I landed, I bought iHealth’s new Bluetooth blood pressure monitor, so I could test a population’s engagement in a place beyond premiums, hospitals and disease. I set out to the only exciting place where money doesn’t exist: Burning Man.

My neighboring camper, a Yoga and meditation instructor, was looking to start a session but couldn’t figure out how to get more people to join him. I quickly offered my services “What if I told you that I have a device that can help you show people their heart rate before and after your sessions?”  He was sold. We went on measuring the participants before and after the session, word spread and more people joined in the next day. Some were so excited they asked me to email them the graphs when we got back.

In a resource-based economy, with a digital monitor as my only resource, I had won a lot of friends and been lavished with numerous sustained resources in return (some healthier than others, it was Burning Man after all).

As I celebrated what to me was proof that digital health works, the Yogi explained in his fascinating Australian accent, what I did not understand yet: “ It was the feedback that got ‘em hooked, they’ve earned something through the exercise and you showed them exactly what that was in return”. A positive feedback loop – that was the secret sauce.

Beyond the exciting world of flamethrowers, art cars and overt nudity, positive feedback loops play an important role in almost anything we engage in. We post to Facebook for likes, tweet for mentions, and anxiously wait for exam grades.

In Part I of this blog post, I interviewed Lori Scanlon, VP of Marketing for PatientsLikeMe and Jacob Sattelmair, CEO of Wellframe. The only way I could learn about what they described as key elements in their design was by reflecting on my own life experiences from the moment where the crowd magically separated in Tahrir Square to the wondrous people of Burning Man and the patients I dealt with in the hospital. As it turns out, inspiration for engaging your patients in the digital health world won’t come from any number of articles, but from your own stories.

Tim Cook, CEO of IDEO, describes in his book Change by Design how the power of story telling is replacing the conventional ‘30 second spot’ TV ads. Lori’s story for instance, about how a patient’s life radically improved after he found out about drug dosage from the Patients Like Me forum, leaves the patient himself with an experience worth telling and sharing.

So close this device, leave the office, go on a field trip and start creating your own patient engagement stories.

Omar Shaker completed medical school in Egypt, followed by internships in the US. He soon left primary care for the world of digital health, moving to San Francisco to work on his own projects. These posts represent his reflections on a series of interviews he conducted with some of the more exciting entrepreneurs working in digital health today. Omar can be reached at  shaker118@gmail.com


Omar is a physician, writer and data analyst. After realizing the potential of exponential technologies to reshape the inefficiencies of healthcare, he left medicine and moved to San Francisco to immerse himself within the network of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, while working on technology projects of his own. Omar frequently writes for Health 2.0 News while consulting major organizations with the Healthcare Practice of Clarity Solution Group. View all posts by OMAR SHAKER →

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