Embracing the Digital Touch to Improve Health Outcomes

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There is an enormous medication adherence problem in the United States, and millions of people could benefit from cognitive therapy, and technology can help.

There is an enormous medication adherence problem in the United States, and millions of people could benefit from cognitive therapy, and technology can help, explained Thomas Morrow, MD, chief medical officer of NextIT, board member of The American Journal of Managed Care and contributor to

During the keynote presentation on Friday at the Fall Managed Care Forum 2015, presented by the NAMCP Medical Directors Institute, the American Association of Integrated Healthcare Delivery Systems, and the American Association of Managed Care Nurses, Dr Morrow discussed why people fail to take good care of themselves, why current approaches to address the issue aren’t working, and how a virtual health assistant (VHA) can be the solution.

Health is the result of a complex interaction of both good and bad influences on a person’s health, including genetics, education, socio-economic factors, cultural influences, interpersonal determinants, age and life-stage, and societal influences. While some factors cannot be changed, others can.

“Behaviors are really key to healthcare and health outcomes, and we don’t spend any time on them,” he said.


There is a long list of why current approaches do not work, such as forgetfulness, financial considerations, and time constraints, and ways to engage patients better can be lacking. While office visits are the most effective approach, this is costly and time consuming. More affordable options like text messaging can be lacking since there usually is not another person at the other end and the technology lacks intelligence to understand the response.

“When you start using virtual health technology, the cost is almost nothing,” Dr Morrow said. “It’s the cost to run the servers once they’re built.”

VHAs are the future and the industry is heading there quickly, he added. They are trained to know clinical guidelines, handle adverse events, operate within medical-legal boundaries, reflect branding, and get more intelligent over time.

Dr Morrow said that while many people assume the type of technology he is talking about—think the movie Her or HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey—won’t actually happen and be implemented in their lifetime, but it’s already here.

There are 2 major concerns with the use of VHAs: will patients embrace the digital touch? Can a VHA facilitate better health outcomes? The answer to both, according to studies that have already been done, is “yes,” said Dr Morrow.

Studies have shown that it doesn’t matter what demographic or what level of computer literacy, VHAs had positive results. In fact, patients prefer a virtual agent over a human almost three-fourths of the time with virtual agents increasing the patient’s willingness to disclose truthful information.

One study assessed how patients felt about the VHA after using it and found that one a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being not at all and 5 being very much), patients felt the VHA cared about them (4.24), trusted the VHA (4.44), liked the VHA (4.3) and were very satisfied (4.49).

With a number of companies working in this space now, it is quickly becoming its own industry. Dr Morrow said there aren’t any other scalable, viable, affordable, and acceptable options for improving behavioral and adherence with the same potential of a VHA.

“This will be our next big industry,” he said. “It will be digital health.”