Forms at the doctor's office just got fun

Story highlights

  • The Tonic Health app uses colorful graphics, interactive features to ask questions
  • Doctors can get a real-time risk assessment on their tablets before seeing patients
  • Intake info should be integrated with electronic health records, doctor says
When patients walk in the door at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, they're handed a form with more than 75 questions about their family history, current medications and symptoms.
They have to answer many of the same questions when they visit radiology. Then again when they get lab work done. And the next time they come to the medical center, they fill out the paperwork all over again.
The long, redundant process is extremely error-prone, says Subha Madhavan, director of biomedical informatics at Georgetown. Handwriting often makes answers illegible. Questions get skipped. Even inputting data into the hospital's computer system can lead to mistakes.
Collecting accurate data is crucial, not only for patient care but for research, Madhavan says. That's why she's working with Georgetown's cancer clinics to roll out a tablet app called Tonic that aims to make the intake of patient information feel less like a chore.
The app uses colorful graphics and interactive features to reduce literacy barriers and move patients through the questionnaire. For instance, it asks you to slide a button along the bottom of a birthday cake to determine your age, or to rate your pain on a scale of happy green to angry red.
The app is also intuitive, skipping questions about your mother's breast health if you say you have no family history of cancer. Along the way, Tonic provides pop-up educational boxes for patients who are unfamiliar with certain medical terms.
"Many organizations are moving toward this electronic data capture," Madhavan says. "It really allows for better patient engagement."
Patient engagement is the buzzword du jour in the medical community, says Sterling Lanier, CEO and co-founder of Tonic Health. With the Affordable Care Act, hospital reimbursement will be partially tied to patient-reported outcomes, or how well patients perceive a facility treated them.
"Health care is the ultimate consumer product -- we all consume it," Lanier says. "We need to think of patients as consumers. They have the same motivations and mindsets."
Tonic is working with large medical communities, including the Mayo Clinic, UCLA, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Kaiser Permanente. Clients find they can ask patients up to 40% more questions by using the app, Lanier says.
"Why is that important? The more we know about somebody, the better we can treat them at a lower cost," he says.
The app also offers doctors a r