By Rex Chekal
Human memory is notoriously unreliable. But it’s also the main data source most physicians have when assessing their patients. If a patient remembers to mention something when they’re in the doctor’s office, the item makes it into their chart. Otherwise, not so much.
This isn’t just a problem of forgetfulness. Remembering pain is tricky, especially when trying to assess whether that pain has increased or decreased over time.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) and remote therapeutic monitoring (RTM) have the potential to greatly reduce physicians’ reliance on patient memory—and launch an era of highly personalized care, better treatment adherence, and better health outcomes.
Here, I’ll explain how the product innovation approach to developing RPM and RTM solutions, in particular, can lead to tools that improve physicians’ ability to assess and treat their patients.
What are RPM and RTM?
Before I get into the ways RPM and RTM can make it easier to deliver personalized healthcare at scale, let me first define the terms.
RPM devices and applications track patient behavior. A few theoretical examples include a step counter that feeds activity information to a patient portal, or a device installed in a toilet that tracks urine composition.
RTM devices and applications deliver care to patients. An example would be an app that uses the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy to guide people through addiction recovery.
Both RPM and RTM solutions capture data that can be shared with physicians, allowing them to make better-informed treatment recommendations.
Widespread smartphone ownership and home internet make RPM and RTM possible in a way they weren’t 10 years ago. And crucially, as of 2022, CMS now reimburses physicians for five RPM- and RTM-specific care codes.
Getting patients to use RPM and RTM solutions
The potential of RPM and RTM is huge. But these solutions will only work if patients actually use them as intended—a big hurdle, as any physician who’s struggled to get patients to download an app knows.
This is where product innovation comes in. Product innovation is an approach that incorporates user feedback and testing from the beginning of a product’s development (whether that product is digital or physical). Instead of creating something based on the opinion or advice of an expert, product innovation involves gathering feedback from people who will actually be using the product.
For example, when I worked on an RTM solution to help treat overactive bladder (OAB), my team and I interviewed many people who live with the condition. We discovered that embarrassment is a huge part of living with OAB—and that this embarrassment often leads people to avoid engaging with the condition. When this happens, patients aren’t only reticent to discuss symptoms of OAB, they’re also less likely to take medication or undergo physical therapy that can help treat it.
So we designed an app that proactively works to normalize OAB symptoms and communicate how common the condition is. We focused not just on prompting users to complete their treatment but also on crafting friendly, welcoming language and including stories and statistics about others who shared their experiences.
When our client launched the app, adoption was strong from the start because we’d woven user feedback into the design from day one. For physicians, this meant the app would not only help patients adhere to treatment plans but also collect enough data to drive future treatment recommendations.
Providing real value to physicians
Of course, patients are only one user group for RPM and RTM solutions. To work well, these solutions also have to serve physicians. Again, product innovation solves for this by taking physicians’ feedback into account from the beginning.
In another RPM engagement, we used physician input to guide the way we made data from an RPM device available to the patient’s physician. We initially thought we’d link our app to whichever patient portal system the provider used, but the physicians we interviewed said that getting new technology connected would likely take too long. So instead, we focused on emailing PDFs of patient data to providers.
This approach provided a streamlined way for physicians to see, at a glance, real data on how patients were adhering to protocol and progressing in their treatment. From there, the physicians could confidently make recommendations for ongoing care. Such practical usability makes physicians more likely to buy into RPM and RTM solutions, which is key to getting them prescribed and used.
How RPM and RTM power personalized care
When physicians have to rely on spotty patient memory as their primary data source, their best option is to recommend whatever treatment works best at the population level. But that treatment may not work well for a given patient, for a host of reasons. For example, standard recovery protocol for spinal fusion surgery includes regular movement to stimulate healing. But many patients are in pain after recovery and prefer to stay still.
In one client engagement, my team and I developed an RTM app to accompany a wearable device that helps with recovery from spinal fusion surgery. The app lets patients keep a pain diary as they recover and captures data from the pedometer included on the wearable device. The power of the app is that it provides a feedback loop: Patients can track their pain and their movement. In most cases, they’ll see that their pain decreases as they move more. This motivates them to keep moving, which helps them recover faster.
When a patient visits their physician for follow-up appointments, the physician can review the app data as well. This makes it much easier to know when to take corrective action—for example, if the patient’s pain is increasing despite the patient wearing the device and moving as recommended. It can also ensure that meetings focus on the most important thing for any individual patient.
Further, an anomalous data point logged in the app on a certain day can prompt the provider to ask what was different about that day. For example, if a patient says they had sky-high pain levels last Tuesday, the provider can ask more questions to discover that on Tuesday, the patient was doing yard work that involved bending, lifting, and twisting—all big no-nos during recovery. This can prompt a focused conversation about appropriate movement and what to avoid to maximize recovery, which is incredibly helpful for improving outcomes.
Better health starts with data
We’re in the early days of RPM and RTM solutions. As more physicians and patients recognize their benefits, we’ll be able to gather a larger amount of data from a broader population. Over time, we can apply artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to this raw data to power more personalized health outcomes for everyone.
Rather than universal standard treatment protocols, we can develop standard treatment protocols for targeted subsets of the population. Treatment recommendations will become more personalized and will lead to better outcomes at a population level.
It’s an exciting vision for the future of healthcare—and it all starts with building RPM and RTM solutions that patients and physicians are excited to use.
Rex Chekal is a principal product designer at TXI, a product innovation firm that delivers engaging experiences and custom software. Within the healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and education sectors, TXI partners with clients from startups to Fortune 100s to fuel growth by giving users the digital products they want to use.