Integration, dash of fun vital for mobile apps

July 27, 2012 in Medical Technology

BOSTON – If mobile medical apps are going to stand any chance of survival – with physicians as well as consumers – they’ll have to be able to integrate with other devices and healthcare platforms, with electronic medical records and personal health records.

They’ll need to give physicians meaningful data with which to improve clinical outcomes. And they’ll need to integrate with the consumer’s “pleasure points,” providing compelling reasons to use them that go beyond those “not-so-sexy” health benefits.

[See also: Mobile health app market in growth mode]

That was the general theme of several sessions at Thursday’s mHealth World Congress, in its second day of a three-day stint at the Collonade Hotel in Boston.

To Victor Strecher, professor and director for innovation and social entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, mobile health programs will only succeed if they tap into behavior change. Personal decisions, he pointed out, are the leading cause of death in the United States, so affecting how those decisions are made can have an impact.

Unfortunately, he added, only about 40 percent of physicians believe mHealth tools can affect behavioral change.

[See also: 5 mobile trends for 2012]

“I think we need better behavioral scientists,” he concluded.

Others believe social media and gaming hold the keys to mHealth success. Mobile devices are the “digital fireplace,” said Douglas Goldstein, an eFuturist and newly hired executive for mHealth developer Diversinet. As such, he said, they offer the opportunity to “go to where people are,” connect with their social circles and reach them when they’re having the most fun.

The issue then lies with positioning them where they’ll be noticed, used and retained.

“The battle going forward is point-of-presence on the handset,” he said.

Thursday’s sessions offered a wide range of examples of successful mHealth programs, from the Joslin Diabetes Center’s “Joslin Everywhere” and “Joslin Inside” programs to mobile apps and mHealth wellness programs developed by Independence Blue Cross, United Healthcare, Aetna and several Blue Cross and Blue Shield associations around the country. Each focuses on using mHealth platforms and tools to reach a target population, compel them to manage or improve their lifestyle and behaviors, and reward them for achieving certain milestones or results.

At Blue Shield of California, for example, an in-house health and wellness program known as Wellvolution saw 40 percent employee participation when it launched in 2008 in a partnership with Shape Up The Nation, said Nazli Ghamarifard, the insurer’s senior wellness program manager. Four years later, she said, and in its evolution to a social media and gaming platform known as The Daily Challenge, the program is seeing an 80 percent participation rate, decreases in smoking and hypertension and an ROI of $1 for every $3 spent in healthcare costs.

They key, say the experts, is keeping consumers interested.

“People want healthy living to be fun, engaging, easy and social,” said Dan Brostek, head of member and consumer engagement for Aetna, which has developed a CarePass platform and launched apps through iTriage and MindBloom.

“Bringing in that social network is an extremely important part of it,” added Nick Martin, vice president of innovation and research and development at United Healthcare, whose mobile offerings include Health4Me and Optumize4Me.

For physicians, mHealth may turn out to be a necessity as well as an attraction. Paolo Machado, chief executive officer and founder of Health Innovation Partners, pointed out that the public and payers are going to be demanding accountability from the physician community. “We tend, in healthcare, to do things because we can,” he said. Now they’re going to have to prove why it’s done.

“The world of mHealth is finally breaking barriers we’ve had toward adoption,” added James Albert, vice president and chief information officer at Plymouth, Mass.-based Jordan Health Systems, which has launched an ambitious mobile communications platform for its employees.

Richard Katz, director of the cardiology division at George Washington University Medical Center, said mHealth tools offer physicians the opportunity to restore the lines of communication with patients that may have been lost through the years.

“We are building relationships” that have been fractured,” he said. “The advantage of this technology is that we can improve and redesign” these relationships.

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