When breast surgeon consultant Liz O’Riordan was diagnosed with breast cancer, she turned to technology so she wouldn’t “have to go through cancer alone.”
O’Riordan’s powerful opening speech this year Digital health virtual summer school (VSS) recalled that technology is not only a tool to benefit doctors, but also a tool to empower patients.
In 2015, O’Riordan was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer and underwent nine months of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. During this time, he did not meet another breast cancer patient “in the flesh,” but resorted to technology that he said “saved my life.”
“For me, technology assured me I didn’t have to go through cancer alone,” he told the VSS audience.
“It’s a really scary place when a cancer diagnosis is made and unless you’ve had cancer, you can’t understand what it’s like.
“I didn’t meet any other breast cancer patients in my flesh during my nine months of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy, it was via Twitter.
“I told him on Twitter I had cancer and they contacted me.”
O’Riordan, who has since retired as a breast surgeon consultant after the recurrence in 2018, said digital health can “dramatically change” the doctor-patient relationship.
He encouraged the public to see digital health as an “engine of proactivity”.
“Technology is changing the lives of patients and, like me, is helping many to become an expert patient.
“You can also use digital health to help patients help themselves, through self-monitoring. It means that, as a doctor, you get reliable and accurate data, which is so important for trials and studies. “
Access to information
But with technology and the ability to empower the patient comes the need to share information, O’Riordan explained.
Speaking of his own frustrations at not being able to see the results of full tests when a cancer happens, he said patients need access to their own data.
“To train a patient, they need access to information and knowledge, accurate medical information so they can make a decision,” he said.
“They also need access to their health equipment. By being able to email and talk to them, you can reduce your admission burden and reduce clinic visits that could be resolved in a quick email. They also need access to their own data.
“As a doctor, I thought I had to control how much information patients got about their results. I knew what was good for them, they wouldn’t understand the scary terms.
“But as a patient, I wanted to know everything, I deserved to know everything. If I didn’t understand, Google would … it’s my body, it’s my data. “
Patient portals make it easier for patients to access their data, O’Riordan added, but more needs to be done to build the relationship of trust to ensure patients use their data securely and access your data will help them.
“Don’t do it, do it”
O’Riordan’s initial lecture was followed by Professor Mary Dixon-Woods, Director of the Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute, and Tara Donnelly, NHSX Digital Director.
Dixon-Woods reiterated the need to empower patients with technology, adding that digital tools should be designed with users in mind.
“Don’t assume you know what’s best, design together and let yourself be guided by a highly participatory and inclusive ethos,” he said.
Dixon-Woods added that “collaboration is key” when it comes to designing and implementing technology in healthcare.
Donnelly provided the VSS audience with an update on NHSX work during the pandemic, including a myriad of remote surveillance work.
“This is so much more than virtual consultations,” he said.
Giving examples of patients who have collaborated with remote monitoring services and managed their health without being admitted to the hospital, Donnelly added that patients provided them with peace of mind.
“Instead of feeling further away from digital, here it really offered people the peace of mind they watched while they were at home,” he said.
“Liz talked about the need for digital health to be an engine of proactivity, and it’s critical to return people’s responsibility for their own health and provide them with information that can help you.”
Liz O’Riordan recently participated in an episode of Digital Health Unplugged that explored the importance of including patients in the digital journey. The episode will be released on July 27th.
The 2021 Digital Health Summer School will take place on July 15 and 16. The free virtual event is exclusive only to members of the NHS and the public sector of digital health networks.