The Impact of Digital Tools on Health Education

Lisa Moss Calderwood, MASenior Medical Writer, Artcraft Health Education

Picture this. Your child has been diagnosed with high blood pressure, a chronic, potentially dangerous condition if not managed carefully. Your pediatrician prescribes a low-salt, low-fat diet, exercise, and a daily hypertension medication. Fine, you think. But how are you going to get Johnny—your 11-year-old, somewhat overweight child who loves playing computer games much more than playing outdoors—to comply?

As you’re waiting in the exam room on a follow-up visit, a nurse enters who takes his blood pressure and then gives him a tablet device to play with while you wait for the pediatrician. You watch with growing interest as your son quickly engages with a game on the tablet that teaches him about hypertension and challenges him to learn more in order to gain points. When the doctor comes in to discuss your son’s latest numbers, Johnny pipes up, “Oh yeah, that’s the systolic number! I know what that is.”

Meanwhile, his mother is given a web key to a website that she can visit on her own time that will give her support as she navigates the challenges of pediatric hypertension. The web key also has a link to the game so Johnny can continue playing it on his family’s tablet or mobile device. Not only that, the web key also has information about a clinical trial on pediatric hypertension that the family may consider joining.

If the nurse had given Johnny and his mother brochures—or just talked about blood pressure— would they have retained or applied the information as well?

Johnny may be more likely to adhere to his treatment plan if he understands his condition and his mother applies some of the tips for adherence that she learned on the website, or from a clinical trial. With the right application, in the right circumstances, and with clear content and design, successful patient outcomes may come down to the effective design of a versatile digital learning tool.

Digital Health’s Versatility

“Any time, any place, any pace” training using digital media is a practical and relevant form of education, whether on the Internet or an iPad, and whether for healthcare professionals (HCPs) or patients. There are thousands of health apps on iTunes and Google Play for phones or tablets. Topics range from understanding disease states and treatments, to coping with chronic conditions, symptoms, and side effects, not to mention popular trackers for medication adherence, diet, exercise, and more. PocketMD, a directory of hundreds of mobile apps created by pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device, and life science companies, offers free apps to patients and providers to download on their iPhones or Android devices. And that directory is just the tip of the iceberg.

Mobile health’s (mHealth’s) advantages of interactivity and immediacy may have potentially far-reaching implications for quality health outcomes. And not just in patient or HCP education. Fierce Biotech notes how “the power, versatility and ubiquity of mobile devices give them the potential to improve many (clinical) trial processes.” With patient recruitment and retention in clinical trials a major challenge, mHealth is providing some engaging solutions in this area as well.

Tracking the Effectiveness of Digital Tools for Health Learning

While research is unfolding about how patients learn using digital tools, the trend is clear: patient and HCP learning is not just going digital, it’s already there. Patients like Johnny are learning on tablets in the doctor’s office. Consumers download apps their doctor might prescribe or that they find on their own, creating their own e-health clouds. Pharmaceutical companies, providers, and other healthcare stakeholders are focusing on users’ demand for content to address their own agendas for marketing, training, and quality health outcomes.

Key to the effectiveness of these tools is an understanding of health literacy levels. According to a 2011 study performed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 59% of Americans use the Internet to search for health information. However, studies show that the reading level of these materials is not at the typical seventh- to eighth-grade level. The American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the US Department of Health and Human Services encourage patient education materials be written at as low as fourth- to sixth-grade reading levels. Digital tools for patient education must follow these health literacy principles to be effective.


Technology in itself is not a solution for patient or HCP education, or assuring the success of a clinical trial. But when applications are devised that consider the users, the content, and the context of use, the likelihood of a positive return on investment (ROI) is increased. Or, as Sarah Ray, a research analyst for Cutting Edge Information, reports (Evolving Mobile Strategy Requires that Pharma Move Beyond ROI), “companies are now using return on experience (ROE) as a gauge of success.” ROE, with its focus on quantitative and qualitative measures, may be more applicable digital patient learning.

The trend is worth watching. AHE can help.

AHE Digital is at the forefront of digital patient learning combining health literacy principles; robust, cross-platform functionality; and stunning animations and design. AHE Clinical Trials offers traditional and digital media solutions for all phases of clinical development, from recruitment to follow-up.