By Mark Odlum
There has been a recent rise in apps and services that help people digitally manage their health - including acute and chronic pain.
Digital health companies and apps are actively trying to transform the way chronic pain is assessed and treated—whether through helping users track pain and manage symptoms, keeping them in touch with their providers, offering encouragement as they take steps to improve their health, connecting them to others who understand, or providing new connections to providers or care plans.
Upside Health, a digital health company, offers a platform called Branch Health, which provides users with an additional way to connect to their existing providers. Branch allows users to track their pain, treatment, and daily symptoms; get access to customized, interactive self-management strategies; gain support and connection with others; enhance communication with their clinicians; and earn rewards for tracking and making progress. They also can get questions answered by other providers such as pain psychologists, physical therapists, health coaches, and nutritionists.
“The future of care has a digital component,” explains Upside Health CEO and co-founder Rachel Trobman. “It’s not going to replace [all] traditional care, because there’s always going to be components of care that are best suited for doctor visits. But pain management apps help to enhance communication with your provider. They allow the patient to be in the driver’s seat, providing flexibility to build the care plan that you want, on your own terms.”
In many cases, finding relief for chronic pain involves a trial-and-error process with long wait times to see specialists or therapists. Modalities such as physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, art therapy, and peer support groups, amongst others, can also play an important role in treatment plans. Yet these, too, can be difficult to access for many living with pain.
“Accessing many of these in the past would require a ton of energy, effort, and cost just to get seen,” Trobman says. “But now, if it’s virtual, all of these things can be readily available at your fingertips.”
Bringing care into the home
With both acute and chronic pain, time is of the essence when it comes to treating and managing pain.
For example: cluster headaches occur in cyclical patterns (or clusters) and are one of the most painful conditions known to man. The longer someone goes without the proper tools to “arrest” the cycle—such as a steroid, or a prescription for an oxygen tank to help make each attack shorter—the longer the cycle will end up lasting.
“There’s a critical shortage of neurologists per capita in the United States,” says Thomas Berk, MD, founder of Neura Health, a virtual neurology clinic that serves individuals living with headache diseases. “In certain parts of the country, you have to drive four or five hours to see someone. The average wait time for a neurologist visit in the United States is 35 days, and it can often be much longer than that, depending on where you live.”
Neura Health aims to change that by offering individuals living with migraine disease and other headache conditions a way to receive comprehensive care from home. Individuals can connect with neurologists, health coaches, nutrition specialists, and physical therapists; there are also individualized care plans available.
“We really wanted to make a place where people are able to get [prompt] and constant contact,” says Berk. “Our mission is to help people find the relief that they need, and improve access and the quality of care they’re getting.”
Find what works for you
Digital health can also be helpful for the acute pain community. Explains Trobman, “Utilizing these digital health tools with acute pain conditions may help prevent the pain from becoming chronic as patients identify the issue quicker, get information to their clinicians faster, and locate resources for things like self-management practices or digital trackers.”
It is important to be cognizant of sharing personal information on any apps, including medical apps.
Berk notes that Neura Health and similar digital offerings follow Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protocols, with extensive training for staff.
“Any product that’s introduced by your doctor, a health care system, or a payer likely had to undergo significant technology assessments and security audits,” Trobman notes. “On the other hand, direct-to-consumer apps that are free on the app stores do not have the same rigorous requirements, and you’d have to read their terms and conditions and security agreements to understand data storage, sales, and more.”
Depending on each individual and their condition, different apps may be better suited for different people.
“No matter where you are on your pain journey, there’s going to be something available to help you feel understood, connected, and supported with different pain management options,” says Trobman.