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Too Many Healthcare Apps

Posted on May 4, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

As we all know, if we want something, there’s probably an app for that. From head to toe, from bank to restaurant to club, in most places in the world, there’s probably an app to meet your needs.

Apple is rightly lauded for its contribution in this area. While it didn’t invent the smart phone as such — early devices mashing together PDAs and connected computing preceded the march of i-Everything by some time — but obviously, it popularized this technology and made it usable to virtually everyone, and for that it deserves the kudos it has gotten.

But as we work to build mobile healthcare models, I’d argue, the notion of there being an app for each need is falling flat. Healthcare organizations are creating, and clinicians prescribing, targeted apps for every healthcare niche, but consumers aren’t showing a lot of interest in them.

Healthcare consumers have shown interest in a subsection of health app categories. According to a study completed last year, almost two-thirds of Americans would use a mobile app to manage health issues. The study, the Makovsky/Kelton “Pulse of Online Health” survey, found that their top interests included tracking diet/nutrition (47%), medication reminders (46%), tracking symptoms (45%) and tracking physical activity (44%).

But other research suggests that consumers aren’t that enthused about other categories of healthcare apps. For example, a recent study by HealthMine concluded that while 59% of the 500 respondents it surveyed had chronic conditions, only 7% used digital disease management tools.

I’ve made the following argument before, but I think it’s worth making again. From what I’ve observed, in talking to both providers and patients, the notion of developing a multitude of apps covering specialized needs is a failed strategy, reflecting the interests of the healthcare industry far more than patients. And as a result, patients are staying away in droves.

From what I’ve observed, it appears that healthcare organizations are developing specialized apps because a) that strategy mirrors the way they are organized internally or b) they’re trying to achieve specific outcomes (such as a given average blood sugar level among diabetics). So they build apps that reflect how they collect and manage data points within their business.

The problem is, consumers don’t care what a facility or clinician’s goals are, unless those goals overlap with their own. They certainly don’t want to open a new app every time they take on a new health concern. And that sucks the benefit right out of app-creation efforts by healthcare providers. After all, aren’t people with multiple conditions the expensive patients we’d most like to target?

What’s more, apps designed to capture data aren’t terribly motivating. Clinicians may live or die on the numbers, but unless those numbers come with a realistic path to action, they will soon be ignored, and the app discarded. Consider the humble bathroom scale. For most people, that one data point isn’t particularly helpful, as it says nothing about where to go from there. So people generally give up when they’re neither motivated nor taught by the apps they download.

To be successful with mobile healthcare, providers and clinicians will need to back the development of apps which guide and sustain users, rather than turn them into data entry clerks.  It’s not clear what should replace the current generation, but we need to turn to a more patient-centric model. Otherwise, all our efforts will be wasted.

Digital Disease Management Tools Aren’t Too Popular

Posted on April 19, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Despite having a couple of chronic illnesses, I don’t use disease management tools and apps, even though I’m about as digital health-friendly as anyone you can imagine. So I guess the results of the new survey, suggesting that I’m not alone, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The study was conducted by HealthMine, which recently surveyed 500 insured consumers to find out whether they used digital health devices and apps. Researchers found that while 59% of respondents suffer from chronic conditions, only 7% of these individuals used a disease management tool.

This was the case despite the fact that 50% reported using fitness/activity trackers or apps, and that 52% of respondents were enrolled in a wellness program. Not only that, two thirds of those involved in a wellness program said their program offered incentives for using digital health tools.

Disease management tools may not be in wide use, but that doesn’t mean that the consumers weren’t prepared to give digital health a try. When they drilled down further, HealthMine researchers learned that in addition to the half of respondents that used fitness trackers, consumers were interested in a wide variety of digital health options. For example, 46% used food/nutrition apps, 39% used weight loss apps, 38% used wearable activity tracker apps, 30% used heart rate apps, 28% used pharmacy apps, and 22% used patient portals or sleep apps.

To get consumers interested in disease management tools, it might help to know what motivates them to pick up any digital health app for their use. The biggest motivators cited were desire to know their numbers (42%), followed by improving their health (26%), the knowledge that someone on the other side of the app is tracking results (19%), and incentives for using the app (10%). (It’s worth noting that while incentives weren’t the biggest motivator to use digital health tools, 91% of respondents said that incentives would motivate them to use digital health tools more often.)

All that being said, I think I know what’s wrong here. In my experience, the apps consumers reported using are directed at helping consumers handle problems which, though complex, can be addressed in part by measuring a few key indicators. For example, achieving fitness is a broad and multifactorial goal, but counting steps is simple to do and simple to grasp. Or take food/dieting apps: eating properly can be a life’s work, but drawing on a database to dig out carb counts isn’t such a big deal.

On the other hand, managing a chronic illness may call for data capture, interaction with existing databases, monitoring by a skilled outside party and expert guidance. Pulling all of these together into a usable experience that consumers find helpful — much less one that actually transforms their health — is far more difficult than, say, tracking calories in and calories burned.

I’d argue that truly effective disease management tools, which consumers would truly find useful, calls for institutional commitment by vendors or providers that neither is ready to supply. But if disease management tools came with a particularly intuitive interface, a link to live providers and perhaps more importantly, education as to why the items being tracked matter, we might get somewhere.