The burgeoning mHealth field offers healthcare a wealth of opportunities to engage with patients and provide a satisfactory return on investment. But 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.
They'll need to integrate with other devices and healthcare platforms, with electronic medical records and personal health records, 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.
That was the general theme of several sessions at the mHealth World Congress held in Boston in late July.
To Victor Strecher, PhD, MPH, 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.
"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.
One example of successful mHealth programs cited during the sessions came from Blue Shield of California, which was involved in a wellness program in 2008, when the payer launched its Wellvolution program, said Nazli Ghamarifard, MPH, the insurer's senior wellness program manager. Four years later, she said, the organization has added two more programs - Shape Up Shield, a social media-fueled fitness challenge, and The Daily Challenge, a 360-degree well-being program offered through MeYouHealth - and is seeing 80 percent employee participation. In addition, she said, the program is seeing decreases in smoking and hypertension and an ROI (in financial and productivity returns) of $3 for every $1 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.