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How Health IT Helps Follow-Up Care, Chronic Disease Management

Follow-up care and health coaching in chronic disease management is inevitable. Health IT can make it more convenient.

By Sara Heath

One of the biggest hurdles faced by the healthcare industry  is chronic disease management, and ensuring patients with persistent conditions like diabetes or obesity are properly cared for. The key to success, many experts say, is ensuring adequate follow-up care and health coaching, but there are challenges related to that, too.

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Just getting patients back into the office for a follow-up appointment or meeting with a health coach can be an issue, many providers find. Easing the burden of maintaining follow-up care and determining how providers can serve their patients in robust health coaching remains a glimmering goal in chronic disease management.

Some healthcare professionals are making progress toward that goal, however. At Apollo Endosurgery, a developer of non-invasive surgical weight loss solutions, experts have identified a digital platform on which health coaches can continue follow-up care and patient engagement.

Apollo recently began offering a new weight loss procedure, called the Orbera Coach Program, involving an intragastric balloon. The balloon ideally will adjust a patient’s appetite and help him or her lose weight. According to Apollo’s president, Dennis McWilliams, simply performing this procedure isn’t enough. Patients need continued coaching.

PatientEngagementHIT.com recently spoke with McWilliams about the importance of health coaching and follow-up care, and how health technologies are making that process easier for both the patient and the provider.

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“One of the key things that physicians have learned, whether it’s from invasive surgery or whether it’s through medically-managed diet and exercise programs or whether it’s less invasive therapies, what they call ‘patient after care’ is very critical for the weight loss success of a patient,” McWilliams said.

“If you just do weight loss surgery on a patient or just put a balloon in a patient and you never see them until you remove it, you’re not reinforcing the eating habits that these patients need to have long-term success.”

Patients need to regularly visit with their doctor or a nutrition specialist after their procedure to ensure they are making lifestyle changes, like exercising and eating properly, McWilliams explained. Up until recently, this process happened in person, with the patient going to and from the doctor’s office on a regular basis.

“Traditionally, [appointments] were managed by the patient physically having to come into the physician’s office,” McWilliams said. “You would be required to schedule appointments once every two weeks, to speak with the physician or speak with the nutritionist on site to work on these elements of aftercare outside the treatment.”

It has become clear, however, that this process isn’t convenient for the patient, and is difficult to adhere to. Because patients have to go through the often arduous task of driving to and from the doctor’s office, taking a notable amount of time out of their days, they often go without follow-up care and health coaching.

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Given the importance of patient engagement and follow-up care in chronic disease management, this made many of Apollo’s treatments less effective. McWilliams said they needed to create a better process for follow-up care that was more engaging and convenient for the patient.

Apollo adopted Zillion's digital platform that is part telemedicine device, part patient portal, to help patients and providers communicate remotely, completely digitizing the follow-up care and health coaching process. This upped the convenience factor for patients, and made them more likely to engage in follow-up care.

According to McWilliams, patients like the ability to access physicians and nutrition experts from the comfort of their own homes.

“From a patient perspective, probably the most important aspect is being able to have telemedicine access to both your physician and a nutritionist who can help give you the counseling you need for your new therapy,” he said.

This convenience has helped improve patients’ adherence to follow-up care, as well.

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“What we’ve found is patients are much more willing to, from the convenience of their home or sitting at their desk during their lunch hour, do a virtual consultation over the internet with a trained nutritionist, or tell their physician how they’re feeling or get a message from their physician in terms of how they’re doing with their new therapy,” McWilliams shared.

Digital patient engagement technologies get widespread support from both patients and providers, McWilliams said. Because the need for follow-up care and health coaching is an inevitability when it comes to chronic disease management, all parties are open to the idea of making that process easier.

Because of this, he thinks the industry will continue to move in this direction. As patient engagement technologies – particularly those focused on follow-up care and health coaching – become more robust, the rest of the healthcare industry will need to follow.

“I do think this a part of a broader trend by medical device companies though to try to find different digital care models to manage patients post procedures,” McWilliams concluded.

“I think the technology is certainly there. I don’t think this a technology issue. I think there’s work to be done in terms of how it’s handled from an insurance and healthcare policy perspective.”

Going forward, McWilliams thinks healthcare policy needs to center more around digital health to foster patient engagement. The technological framework may already be there, he explained, but so long as payer and federal policies do not incorporate them, their use will be limited.

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