skeleton laptopNew health and fitness apps are popping up every day, and according to Rock Health, funding for digital health start-ups in 2012 grew 46 percent over 2011. It is a true vote of confidence that technology is key part of how Americans now approach their health.

Of all these technologies the most pervasive is still the Web. Pew’s Health Online 2013 study, released last month, found that more people than ever are tapping the Internet for health information, with 72 percent of US Web surfers reporting that they have gone online in the last year in search of health information, and one in three of these health information seekers has actually sought out a diagnosis online.

This is all positive. It’s empowering, and it shows just how far we have come in terms of making information freely available to people as they try to understand their basic health needs. Yet, and the data supports this as well, there is a massive divide when it comes to the quest for health information and the value of the Internet for healthcare.

The Pew study, beyond asking how these Internet users sought health information, also asked what they did when they had “serious health issues” – and the results were staggering in the face of the other data. 70 percent said they go first to their doctor and, of that group, only one percent relies on online information to fulfill that interaction. That is to say, when it comes to valuable care and information on serious care questions, technology has far from supplanted the real-life clinician as the central resource.

Whether looking at it from the patient side of things or the clinicians’, it seems obvious that patients still rely on healthcare professionals when it comes to serious health concerns and questions because most online resources are missing direct clinician input that is specific to the user/patient. But there are new tools and platforms that are emerging to fill that gap. They come in the form of patient engagement platforms that offer doctors and patients a way to interact online, as well as patients’ ways of interacting with each other when they have similar diagnoses and diseases.

But with soaring healthcare costs across the industry, are these platforms worth the cost of implementation? All signs – and the data – point to yes.

Numerous industry stakeholders have calculated the ROI of wellness patient-engagement resources and platforms. Looking at four studies all conducted in the past decade (from Hallmark, Inc, Hawaii Medical Service Association, Midwest Regional Hospital) as well as an analysis of several other well-publicized case studies and peer-reviewed meta-analyses, various wellness programs show measurable savings.

The research shows a very clear return on investment in programs that address those costs directly through encouraging patients to get engaged in their health in simple ways. A study by Blue Cross Blue Shield showed that the average amounted to a $9.81 return for every dollar spent. If you factor the results from all of the above studies, it amounts to about $420 in healthcare savings per patient per year – a $4.51 return for every dollar spent to build and implement patient engagement programs.

This data, as well as the overwhelming consumer demand, is a clear sign that these types of platforms will play a major role in the healthcare industry in the future. With the growing comfort with, and reliance on, social media, I predict that it’s only a matter of time before these platforms are a regular aspect of healthcare in America.

[Image courtesy Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com]