VentureBeat "covers disruptive technology and explains why it matters in our lives," which well explains the session's title: “Consumer Health Apps: Human Centered Design." However, if the panel's conclusion was that patients are not engaged with health IT or their own health, then the human centered design part of consumer health apps is clearly failing—because the apps are not designed to meet consumer needs. No one needs an app.
In order to even want an app, a patient—engaged or otherwise—must first have a device. Far too many advocates on the health IT bandwagon assert that smartphones are ubiquitous. According to Pew Internet statistics, 85 percent of U.S. adults have a cell phone. Of that 85 percent, 53 percent have a smartphone. Of the 53 percent who have a smartphone, 52 percent have used that smartphone to collect health information, Pew Internet reports. The additional questions to ask are—of that half of a half, how many are using an app and how many remain patients of Dr. Google? One report from Adeven, a mobile analytics firm, provides some insight—nearly 400,000 apps sit in the iOS App Store classified as "zombies," generating few downloads and little to no revenue for their producers.
The beauty of the internet's search function is the power of suggestion. One doesn't need to know exactly what one is looking for in order to embark on a search. With each return of results comes an addition of knowledge that enables one to further refine one's search and/or run off down an entirely different rabbit hole of information. Apps limit this kind of unfettered exploration. Their specificity of operation—the very thing that makes them a marketable app—is exactly what keeps them from being the go-to tool for inquiring minds. To want to use an app is to want to do a specific thing. To engage patients in this form of health IT we must not ask how we get patients to use an app, but how we get patients to want to do the certain thing in question.
Whether we want patients to keep track of their blood pressure, count calories, log blood glucose readings, or learn about cellular reproduction, we must first find their source of motivation. Games and rewards only go so far in triggering prolonged motivation—but show me the game that rewards me not with new flowers for my virtual garden or a special frog to breed and instead with reduced insurance premiums and I'll make it part of my daily routine. What patients want is to define their own goals and outcomes. To be "healthy" is couched in institutional ideology of standards and measurements; yet a patient who couldn't care less about his BMI and blood pressure may care enormously about living long enough to walk his daughter down the aisle or celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. To engage a patient in his own health one must find what matters to that individual patient.
Join in the discussion about patient engagement at MedCity News' ENGAGE conference, held June 5-6 in Washington, D.C., where I'll be on a panel talking about what patients do and do not want from those seeking to engage us.