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Patient Engagement: Are Apps Good Engagement Tools?

This week MedCity News shared an article about patient engagement that posits, "Patients today aren’t truly engaged with health technology or even with their own health." The article, written by Laura Wagner and originally appearing in VentureBeat, is a commentary based on a session from HealthBeat 2013, a VentureBeat presented conference.

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. 

To engage a patient in health IT is thus a secondary matter, and engaging patients in mobile health IT a tertiary one. The benefit of utilizing health IT to achieve the patient's self-defined goals and outcomes must be clearly defined with a detailed measure of cause and effect. Should the aforementioned patient who wishes to walk his daughter down the aisle receive a doctor's recommendation to lose 10 percent of his body weight, the benefits of doing so must be illustrated in relation to his goal. According to a recent New York Times article, a recent national study found that "patients who lost a mere 7 percent of their total body weight reduced their risk for diabetes by 58 percent." For the patient to gain his own definition of meaningful use out of any health IT, the data input must provide data output that illustrates what successful weigh lost accomplishes in relation to his goal—the real impact on his disease risk, how much easier it is for his heart to pump, the decreased burden on his knees. Such feedback ties directly in with health literacy, as in order to engage in one's health one must understand the why before even getting to the how.



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. 

Comments

  1. And here I was thinking my lack of an app showed app-athy. I have yet to see an app that would help me track what I want to know.

    ReplyDelete
  2. If it's worth one read, it's worth another.

    I want an app that will take my health conditions/age/weight into account, predict a possble lifespan (and it better not be depressingly short), and then start adding more time/days to my estimated lifespan when I engage in healthy behaviour. Maybe that would be useful to me. I track the good and am rewarding myself (theoretically) in a more tangible way than just virtue.
    So would that turn my life into a game?

    ReplyDelete

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