Our last two posts shared some evidence of the mobile revolution that is underway in the healthcare industry. A number of mHealth apps that provide true digital value to patients have emerged, and they are disrupting the status quo in the industry. Apps to manage diabetes, to treat vision problems, to test blood, and to track sleep patterns are providing new ways of care for patients outside of the traditional physician/hospital treatment.
These mHealth apps make up a market expected to reach $26 billion by 2017. They offer services that can be so useful and effective in providing a new kind of care that they’re catching the eye of the FDA, presenting a new set of challenges to mHealth entrepreneurs. Over the last 10 years, the FDA has cleared only about 100 mHealth apps, and has selected only one as a prescription-only app because it is so impactful on the health of users. With over 60,000 mHealth apps out there on the market though, why is it that so few have received the FDA stamp of approval?
It starts with the FDA’s new approach to mHealth apps. With mHealth apps really taking off in the last couple years, the FDA has had to quickly deal with how to regulate them. Their latest strategy, as of September 2013, is to “focus only on the apps that present a greater risk to patients if they don’t work as intended and on apps that cause smartphones or other mobile platforms to impact the functionality or performance of traditional medical devices”. For example, an app that tracks your calories and exercise is of low risk if it functions improperly, but an app that monitors users’ blood glucose levels would need to be highly accurate and reliable. However, the vast majority of mHealth apps on the market today are not so critical and would therefore not come under FDA scrutiny, as they aren’t crucial to the health of the patients using them.
But why are most mHealth apps of such low impact to patients when we know they have huge potential to provide real value in changing patient behavior and putting patients in charge of their healthcare experience?
If you look at the bulk of current mHealth apps available, you’ll find that most are unessential, disposable, and unnecessary in the everyday lives of patients. “We have created an ecosystem of useless apps,” says Christopher Wasden of PWC’s Health Industries practice. He explains that the mHealth app market is huge in volume, but not in quality. Some entrepreneurs in healthcare have feared the watchful eye of the FDA and thus “watered-down” their apps to be less impactful to avoid stringent regulation, as entrepreneurs see the FDA clearance/approval process as, “murky, challenging, and capital intensive.” This discourages many of them from building quality mHealth apps, or even from entering the space at all.
Other mHealth app developers have simply not dived deep enough into the limitless ways their apps can affect the fundamentals of patient care. They have not explored the full potential of the unique situation mobile devices provide: they can go anywhere, have constant network access, can utilize accessories and attachments to expand their capabilities, are used by the majority of American adults (58% own a smartphone; that number goes up to 83% when looking at millennials), and are actually enjoyable to use. Because of all this, mobile devices offer the perfect medium to provide individualized, 24/7 health monitoring, support, and treatment to patients.
With universal, multi-purpose devices like these, mHealth entrepreneurs willing to make the investment will discover countless ways they can be used to help patients receive a new kind of personalized care. The innovative mHealth apps of today are only the tip of the iceberg, as digital disruptors will find endlessly creative uses for mobile devices in healthcare.
Unfortunately, creating good, quality mHealth apps is far from easy. Many factors go into designing a well-balanced mHealth app that will be effective in its intended purpose and that will be embraced and used by patients. In order to provide true digital value in one’s mHealth apps, according to Christopher Wasden, businesses will have to address the following:
- Integration – An app must seamlessly integrate into users’ lives. If it requires great effort of patients to go out of their way to use it, they won’t stick with it. User-Acceptance Testing is imperative. An app also has to be easy for physicians to integrate into their workflow so doctors and patients can be on the same page with their care.
- Interoperability – An app must be accessible from a number of different devices, and updates to one must update all. An app must also connect to the cloud to communicate with other healthcare systems and data in order to provide a complete health experience.
- Intelligence – An app must leverage data analytics and algorithms to extract intelligent insights from large amounts of data. For an mHealth app to be valued and used by patients, it must be able to provide medical guidance as accurately as a real-life doctor.
- Socialization – mHealth apps have great potential to influence behavioral change, as mobile devices are in the hands of users throughout their whole day. People do best with behavioral change when connected into a network of support, so mHealth apps must utilize social networks to encourage and support users as they work to improve their health.
- Outcomes – An app must provide an effective way of presenting health goals, logging steps to achieve them, and then validating the results. A focus on results will keep the user motivated to achieve.
- Engagement – An app must feel so satisfying to the user that they continue to use it over and over again. Effective forms of engagement are necessary. A major current movement in engagement is called gamification, where gaming techniques are applied to non-gaming experiences in order to interest and motivate users by appealing to their innate desires to compete, achieve, and win. For more info on Gamification, click here.
In order to avoid being relegated to the digital dumpster, mHealth apps must provide true digital value to users. These six components together create an optimum formula for mHealth app success. Using them as the focus for mHealth app design will give apps their best shot at being adopted by users and at having a real impact on patients’ lives.
For examples of apps succeeding in this way, check out our posts on innovative mHealth apps.