One thing Norma Padron likes about the world of today is that it’s what the world of yesterday saw as the world of tomorrow. In all those science fiction movies and books and shows, technology was always our ally, our servant, and that is increasingly the truth for people today.

What always seemed to be missing, however, is something Padron is working to ensure will be part of the human/tech coexistence: empathy.

Padron, associate director of population health at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research and assistant professor at the Jefferson College of Population Health, will be one of three keynote speakers at Princeton MediHack, a three-day event at Princeton University that looks to build innovative, tech-based solutions for healthcare problems. The event takes place Friday through Sunday, April 20 to 22, at Frick Chemistry Laboratory. MediHack kicks off at 5 p.m. on Friday with an opening ceremony and dinner. Saturday will be a day of workshops and hacking from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The event rounds out with judging and awards on Sunday, from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

Joining Padron as speakers will be Bon Ku, assistant dean for health and design and an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University, and Craig Limoli, founder of WellSheet. The event and workshops are free to attend. Visit princetonmedihack.io

Padron grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and, at times, across the border in Mexico. “I’m very much a frontera kid,” she says. She’s the only child of a single mom who worked as an administrative assistant.

Padron’s first academic love was philosophy. But even at an early age, she knew she wouldn’t love the money philosophy degrees earn, so she earned her bachelor’s in economics from the University of Texas “because at the time I thought I thought it was the closest major to philosophy, where I would have a broad set of career options,” she says.

She earned a master’s in economics from Duke in 2008. She worked for a health economist there and discovered her wish to work in healthcare. She got a second masters, in public health, from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona while she worked for the another health economist.

Padron came back to the states and earned a Ph.D. in health policy and management from Yale in 2014. She worked as a graduate researcher in health economics in several places, including the University College London, the Nuffield Trust, and at the Institute for Research in Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After a stint at the Icahn School of Medicine at Sinai and as a research scientist at the New York Academy of Medicine, Padron became an assistant professor at Jefferson and is the associate director and founder of the Main Line Health Center for Population Health Research.

Digital therapy. One of Padron’s main interests in public health is the question of how doctors interact with patients and how patients interact with healthcare in return. For one thing, she would like to see more people be more excited about their healthcare options.

But from inside the medical arena, Padron sees the need for doctors to be able to use technology in new ways to improve the patient experience. At its simplest level, there’s the smartphone, a device that’s overtaken how we communicate on all levels in just the past decade and a half. We find information, order products, entertain ourselves, and stay in touch with people through these devices — so why shouldn’t healthcare providers be using them to stay in touch with patients?

To be fair, some are. But Padron says that simple things, like the doctor following up on outpatient surgery for example, are an easy way for doctors to continue care through technology. It’s what she calls “digital therapy,” and a basic example is: you go to the doctor for a procedure on your knee, go home that day, and get text messages at, say, the four hour mark letting you know to expect some swelling as the anesthetic wears off. This is the crux of what Padron refers to as:

Digital empathy. Most of us are lucky enough to not need a doctor all the time. But the downside is that when something arises that requires medical attention, you and the doctor could be on different wavelengths.

Padron says that a few weeks ago she got an allergic rash from something. She had no idea what it was nor how bad it would get. The doctor said “That doesn’t seem so bad, go home and take some Benadryl.”

The disconnect was that while it was something the doctor had seen a million times, it was new to Padron. But, she says, he never explained what the rash might be or why she had broken out — and that’s the kind of stuff she wanted to know; his knowledge of what it was, so she would know what to expect as the rash cleared up.

Where technology comes in, Padron says, is that younger people will often say “I wish I could ask Alexa.” Because Alexa and other smartspeakers will always answer your questions more fully. In fact, smartspeakers have been shown to be of great help to Alzheimer’s patients for this very reason — the machine will respond every time someone asks a question, even if it’s the same question for the hundredth time today. No yelling, no snickering from atop the high horse, no frustration. Just answers.

While Padron’s doctor wasn’t rude to her, she says he didn’t tell her everything she wanted to know. And he didn’t tell her what to expect in four hours or two days or whenever. So as technology becomes an even greater presence (and closer companion) in our lives, those developing technology and those who would use it for patient care must be mindful of psychology and empathy as they develop ways to implement the brave new way, she says.

There are sticking points. One of the largest hurdles to leap, Padron says, is that creativity and ideas move a lot faster than existing systems. Regulations (i.e., constraints) are many and thick in healthcare, and new ideas for how to better deliver digital therapies (from texted updates to wearable microchipped prescriptions) need to be mindful of what is and is not allowed.

At the same time, Padron says, digital frontiers offer a chance to rewrite how some things can be done. “We don’t have to replicate the analog,” she says, meaning that when developing new technologies, designers needn’t always pay attention to how it’s always been done. For a basic example, think of the internet in relation to the size of a piece of writing. You can only fit so many words on a paper page, but online you can go on forever, and add links and graphics and blowouts and diagrams and music and so on.

Young healthcare tech entrepreneurs, like those competing in the MediHack, in other words, have a blank slate for how to apply new ideas that are not beholden to the old rules.

“A lot of solutions are based on constraints the insurance companies want,” Padron says. “But technology doesn’t need to follow all those rules.”

And maybe the future of tech at the intersection of psychology and healthcare and ethics is best viewed through a question Padron asks when she teaches on the subject: If we started the healthcare system over, today, from scratch, what would it look like?

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