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How Smartphones and Apps are Shaping the Future of Health Care

More hospitals are forced under the Affordable Care Act to track patient outcomes, paving the way for digital health tools to expand.

(Tribune News Service) -- The future of health care may soon come down to virtual physicians, implants under the skin that hold medical records and personal vital signs accessible from an app.

A savvier public that demands better, less expensive access to care will lead patients to be the bosses of their own health, said Dr. Leslie Saxon, a cardiologist and executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing. At the same time, more hospitals are forced under the Affordable Care Act to track patient outcomes, paving the way for digital health tools to expand.

The center invites designers, engineers, inventors, strategists, investors and visionaries from the health care, entertainment and technology sectors to work together to fulfill Saxon’s goal that patients become “the heroes of their own health stories.”

“One of the things medicine suffers from is a horrid service model,” Saxon said. “It’s very hard to be a patient, it’s very hard to access your data, very hard to access your doctor, and hard to get your medical content.”

That’s where digital tools come in, she said. Tools that prove to be efficient, accurate and safer will replace traditional care.

“It’s no longer, ‘I’m the boss and you’re the patient,’” Saxon said. “We recognized that if we partner in their care, we can get better results. The digital community can be ripe to support medical solutions.”

One way is through social networks, which can be used to include other doctors as well as family members in discussions regarding a patient’s care.

Increasingly, that kind of interaction will be done on smartphones, she said.

Saxon said one example of combining mobile networks with social media is a new app she co-invented with experts at USC called BioGram. The free app is the first to allow heart rates to be shared with a photo that can be posted to Facebook and other social media, she said.

The user’s heart rate is recorded from a heart rate monitor built into a smartphone case that records, displays, stores and transfers electrocardiogram (ECG) rhythms wirelessly. Heart rates can also be input manually or from another sensor. Saxon calls it the convergence of health, technology and mobile digital devices that will allow people to be smarter patients.

The app is one way a patient can share his or her information with many specialists. At the same time, social media can be expanded to help the patient see specialists from thousands of miles away.

“You can get an appointment with a virtual me,” she said.

The more the medical sector embraces digital technology, the better a patient can be cared for, Saxon said.

For those with mental health needs, smartphone devices and body sensors can be used to help flag when someone has stopped taking medication — sort of like a little light tells a driver to change the oil, Saxon said.

Already, more than 100 million people are sporting wearable devices to monitor their health. Saxon sees that as an ongoing trend, one in which each person will monitor his or her health from birth to death.

Her center is hoping to move that forward.

And the generation that will do that is the millennials.

“It’s a very diverse generation, a tech savvy generation,” said Aaron Smith, president of YI Advisors, a consulting group aimed at helping others reach out to millennials.

Part of the success of the Affordable Care Act depended on enrolling a high number of the uninsured between the ages of 18 to 35, also known as the Young Invincibles.

Signing up for a health plan is one challenge. The next challenge is teaching them how to remain engaged in their own health care.

“I think millennials will drive changes in our health-care system, but there’s a lot of work to get them there,” Smith said.

The group has noticed that millennials are more likely to turn to technology for information about how to use health care. About 85 percent of those ages 18 to 29 use cell phones to go online.

Noting the trend, the group created a free app called Healthy Young America, which helps young people understand health-care literacy, benefits and accessing primary care.

“My generation is being squeezed out by shrinking incomes (and) student loan debt to the extent that technology that creates economic efficiency to health care will be helpful,” he said. “In some ways, that will be the driver of innovation of this change.”

Gustavo Herrera, western regional director of Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit millennial research and advocacy group, is working toward improving health care information that can be accessed on smartphones.

“We found the best place for us to educate millennials about health care is on their own turf and communicating through mobile technology,” he said. “Part of what we constantly think about is how we can better engage through mobile apps.”

The focus on smartphones is to help close what Herrera calls a digital divide. Most young people have smartphones instead of home internet.

Herrera said his organization continues to work toward developing health care information that is easier to access on smartphones.

“The way we see it, the earlier our folks begin to utilize the health-care resources, the more preventative their approach will be in nature,” Herrera said. “We want to make sure our folks are accessing the health-care system and really see it as a preventative health.”

Saxon said all the innovation toward using digital tools to enhance health care will not take away the brick and mortar hospitals. But she said the use of digital tools will move forward as more people notice they can have their needs met through smartphones and social media. In doing so, they will likely push technology to find better ways to access care.

“Health care is so tough to access that it’s crying out for better solutions,” Saxon said.

©2015 the Daily News (Los Angeles) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC