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Are We Entering the Day of the Digitalist?

“The Digitalist will reside in an e-coordination facility and remotely track data from biosensors, portals, apps, and social media, then combine the data with clinical parameters and knowledge about the patients’ medical history. The Digitalist will bear responsibility for monitoring and acting on the data, and will also be paid in return for improving value and efficiency of care delivery, intercepting crises before they unfold, reducing avoidable admissions, and coordinating care with traditional providers in the clinic.”

At first glance, the paragraph above sounds like a plot for a new sci-fi show or ER 2049. But it’s an excerpt from an interesting article by Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, and it provides a window into the potential future of healthcare as we know it through a new role: the digitalist.

What is a Digitalist?

Spiegel’s description above explains the day-to-day workings of the role accurately, but in a broader view, the digitalist is quickly becoming a product of necessity. Healthcare, it seems, shares the same struggles as corporate America. We’re so focused on acquiring as much data as we possibly can that we’re behind in devising systems to sift through it and utilize the information we’ve collected to the best of our abilities.

That will be the digitalist’s job.

Dr. Spiegel envisions the digitalist monitoring the data collected from patients via apps and patient portals and then reviewing this data before communicating with patients via telephone or video conferencing. The digitalist would also have the power to connect with clinicians to provide information and updates and help establish the proper opportunities for in-person visits.

Think of them as a hands-on professional in an increasingly hands-off world.

Challenges of the Digitalist Movement

While the advent of the digitalist is exciting — what clinician wouldn’t turn down trained help in sorting through all this data? — the market still has room to grow before we see the full advent of such a position. Many healthcare budgets are not equipped to onboard such a person yet, particularly because the nature of the role will require considerable medical training and thus a higher salary. And, of course, there are liability concerns to weigh as well. Who would be responsible should a patient outcome suffer because provided data was not acted upon properly or quickly? These are questions that will require heavy vetting.

Patients will have to grow as well in order for the digitalist to truly realize its full potential. Dr. Spiegel’s example above, for instance, offers us a glimpse of a digitalist utilizing data provided by patients who have fully bought in and relayed information through all of the proper channels. This will certainly not be the case in every instance, so what will the fallback plan be for patients who simply can’t or won’t supply information through the necessary channels where it can be accessed by the digitalist? The responsibility may fall to each facility to make its own decision.

All of the above are intriguing, essential questions, but in asking them we have already agreed that the potential appearance of a digitalist has merit enough to move on to this next line of consideration. There is a need, after all, because our mass accumulation of data shows no signs of slowing down. It will be interesting to see how and if the role develops. Will it be a practice choice of the future for young med students, for example? The proof may ultimately be in the data.

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