Mobile Health Apps: Why Physicians Need to Care

February 22, 2012

Thousands of health apps are available; few are worth patients' time.

Christopher Wasden cuts a trim figure these days, but the consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was 50 pounds heavier not very long ago. Too much travel, an erratic sleep schedule, and a slower-than-normal metabolism, combined with his natural disinclination for unpleasant information contributed to his weight problem, he says.

The solution was old-fashioned self-discipline, aided by his own obsessive determination to track and analyze virtually every facet of his daily activity that contributed to his health.

"Part of the reason I was 50 pounds heavier than I should have been was that I avoided scales; they gave me bad news," he says. Now, his scale is connected wirelessly to the Internet so he can upload and track his progress. He wears a FitBit-a high-tech, Web-enabled pedometer that tracks his physical activity and can even monitor his sleep patterns. And he uses an array of mobile applications, such as LoseIt! that allow him to track every morsel of food he eats, analyze their dietary content, offer him insight into how to improve results.

"Our surveys show that people want intelligent applications that analyze data and tell them what to do with the information, instead of these dumb apps that just log information," said Wasden, speaking Wednesday in Las Vegas at the health IT conference HIMSS.

In short, Wasden is the poster child for the modern patient.

He and other observers gathered at HIMSS argue that healthcare is moving more forcefully than ever toward a consumer-centric model, in which patients rely less on their own physician for information and advice and more on information they gather themselves via the Internet and mobile applications. The web has now replaced physicians in surveys asking consumers where they get most of their health information and in whom they place the most trust, says Wasden.

But with respect to the roughly 17,000 mobile health applications currently available on app stores, quality has a long way to go. For example, 26 percent of mobile health applications are used only once by consumers post-download, according to PwC research, and 74 percent are used 10 times or fewer.

Why should physicians care? Because the right mobile health applications can in fact help patients achieve their objectives, stay compliant with treatment plans, and make better decisions.

"When we look at the application of mobile health on both the consumer and the physician side, it's all about changing behavior-both consumer and clinician behavior," says Wasden.

Most of the best healthcare apps haven’t been invented yet, he suggests. According to PwC analysis, only a very few of the most successful apps available on the Apple app store included most elements of what Wasden argues is the right paradigm for a health app: interoperability (the ability to chare information with other apps the consumer uses); integration (incorporation into the consumer's daily acivity); intelligence (the provision actionable information); outcomes information; socialization (making it easier for users to share information with other people); and engagement (features that drive people deeper into the app and keep them coming back).

Consumers want great health apps, Wasden argues-40 percent would be willing to use the right ones more than once a day-but not so much that they're willing to pay for it. Only a third of respondents to a PwC survey say they'd pay as much as $6 for a mobile health app. The reason: Many consumers believe that their improved health saves the healthcare system money, so the applications that help them achieve their goals should be provided to them for free.