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Digital Empathy: A better way to identify social determinant and mental health issues

By April 28, 2021July 13th, 2021No Comments

This two-part blog series explores themes from several recent podcast and video interviews held with Start Up HealthPassionate Pioneers, and Divurgent. I will explore potential flaws in traditional patient interviewing and surveying processes; how healthcare and education organizations are rethinking the way they collect information from individuals; and how they can more effectively and accurately gather data to improve health and other outcomes, using Digital Empathy.

There’s a long history of healthcare’s needs to gather patient reported data that dates back to the very first conversation a patient has with a physician. Physicians face real challenges in getting information from patients and communicating with them.

Understanding the science and the psychology of what happens in the communication process is key to improving outcomes not only for the patient but also for organizations that use and rely upon this data. When the approach to collecting the data neglects to consider the individual from whom the data is being collected :culture, age, ethnicity, state of mind, the context of the data sought, etc. – the individual’s willingness to share complete and accurate information is impeded.

To address this Tickit Health has developed a proprietary and proven approach to data collection that we call Digital Empathy. It uses personalized, socially relevant survey and assessment tools, that are empathetic to a person’s reality and the ways in which they are comfortable communicating. It acknowledges their literacy, culture, age, gender, ethnicity, language and the context in which the data is being sought to help them feel safe and supported, and thus empowers them to be more willing to share their personal information.

Digital Empathy applied to existing evidence-based screening tools such as the Rapid Adolescent Prevention Screening (RAAPS), has proven a much more effective way of enabling the collection of sensitive information to identify the greatest risks impacting youth health, wellness, risky behaviors, and academic success. RAAPS is a validated, time efficient comprehensive risk and depression screening tool used by thousands of professionals across 32 states. For young people facing mental health challenges, identifying risk and providing digitally empathetic support can be a game-changer.

Using a digitally empathetic approach can improve the productivity of an organization upwards of 200% in their data collection efforts, while also enhancing the quality of the data that’s being captured. This is critical when you consider those you are asking are suffering from mental or social determinant health issues. The sensitivity, and the specificity, are dramatically increased when you take this digitally empathetic approach to the process.

Take for instance when a physician walks into the exam room, and their 12-year-old patient is sitting next to their parent, and in the course of the clinical encounter, the physician asks questions like, “Do you drink alcohol? Do you vape? Do you smoke marijuana?” As parents, we can all immediately recognize the likelihood that the child is going to say “No,” is very high. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the honest answer. But the child – being in a vulnerable state, perhaps in pain or anxiety – is prone to give the ‘safest’ answer, so they say what they feel their parent and the doctor want to hear.

In a digitally empathetic model, the child might be handed a tablet or sent a secure text message on their phone, and be asked a series of questions they can respond to confidentially without the stigma or fear of their parent listening in. And if designed properly even the question about alcohol use can be further de-stigmatized to be non-judgmental and easy to respond to using emojis and icons, something a12-year-old is very comfortable with. This is the essence of Digital Empathy.

If we expect to improve engagement and strengthen the relationship between patients and providers, or students and teachers, we need to start asking questions in a way that’s going to get us accurate data. A clinician may actually be making decisions based on poor data, which is significant because it can have a direct impact to clinical outcomes. Physicians know this, so why are we wasting their valuable time in asking for this data, when a digitally empathetic approach can save them time, and give them more accurate data on which to act?

Let’s look at another real-life example; Simple use of the PHQ or another patient health questionnaire which is generally available in most electronic health records. These tools used in an open-source realm quickly identify whether or not a patient has any mental health issues. As simple as these assessments are, the way organizations implement these tools can make a difference. For example, some organizations may hand the patient a clipboard with a piece of paper and they respond to it on paper which then requires someone to type the information into the EHR or scan it into the record, which oftentimes doesn’t happen before the encounter.

So, the physician is able to “check the box” confirming they did the mental health screening to be reimbursed for the visit, but the answers are not necessarily taken into account when the physician walks into the exam room because they have not seen the responses yet. What happens is a missed opportunity to identify that this patient may need some counseling or additional follow up so we can move to an outcomes, value based remuneration model. The efficiency of getting this information in a way that is more useful becomes that much more important so the physician can be more efficient in driving proper outcomes.

In my next article, I will continue to discuss the process of applying digital empathy to get better outcomes through the use of technology and look at an emerging trend around the convergence of education, healthcare, and social.