Digital health. It’s coming. Or maybe, it’s here.

Just last month, America’s Essential Hospitals held its annual conference, VITAL2015. Our opening keynote speaker was Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute and a leading practitioner of digital medicine.

During his speech, Topol talked about how technology, such as the smartphone, is democratizing medical information. He showed us a future where you can check your glucose anytime you want using a glucose app – and that will change what you choose to eat. He talked about the ability to Uber a doctor to your door in 10 minutes. Digital medicine, he says, puts patients in control of their own, individualized health.

This week, our communications manager, Maya Linson, MS, shared an NPR report, Siren Song of Tech Lures New Doctors Away from Medicine. This article talks about how medical students in the Bay Area are flocking to the digital health field as opposed to taking jobs seeing patients. The Bay Area is known for tech start-ups, so it’s no surprise this would take off there. In fact, the article notes, “Bay Area-based medical students from Stanford and UCSF have among the very lowest rates of pursuing residency programs after graduation compared to the rest of the country.”

In addition to citing an environment ripe for this sort of thing, the “dropout docs” talk about digital health as a way to solve a significant challenge they experienced during medical school: involving the patient in care. One talks about the patient being “absent from the discussion” during rounds.

So the digital health field is working on ways to give patients more control over their experience by using the technology we have all around us – this is what Topol talked about. Wearable devices and mobile apps to help patients take more control of their own health, online help for people looking to change their behavior to avoid developing diabetes, second opinions from top medical experts online. Med school dropouts and graduates are creating these tools to empower patients.

So What About Primary Care?

What about it? Well, digital health does give patients a lot of power. But it doesn’t eliminate the need for doctors, for exams, and for treatment. Primary care, in fact, is crucial for health – it helps prevent costly and debilitating illness. And there is a shortage of primary care doctors in our workforce. The “dropout docs” of Silicon Valley spoke to that. “…they felt pushed out of medicine, due to the lack of career opportunities or earning potential. Family practitioners, who serve on the front lines of health care, are paid the least.”

Primary care was also the topic of our VITAL2015 closing keynote, delivered by another University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) med school alum, Zubin Damania. Damania, MD (also known as ZDoggMD), left his 10-year career as a hospitalist at Stanford University Medical Center to join Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project. The goal was to transform downtown Las Vegas.

Damania’s contribution: to rethink health care for the residents. He created Turntable Health – membership-based primary care that offers easy patient access to providers – onsite, on the phone, or via chat – exercise classes, cooking demonstrations, health education, and more.

“Primary care, re-mixed” is Damania’s answer to empowering the patient. It’s primary care that makes sense, that makes it simple and logical for patients to reach providers. And it also uses technology – including a patient portal that will allow patients to write directly in their own electronic health record – to make that happen.

If this is the future of primary care, perhaps soon more med students will find their way back there.