Is a health app great if no one uses it? Maybe it’s time for plan B

The following is a guest post by Greg Kefer, CMO at Lifelink Systems.

It’s hard to argue that the most effective way to reach and engage consumers digitally is through the smartphone. Today, 86% of American consumers take these small, advanced connected devices with them everywhere and use them for everything. It’s no wonder companies across all industries continue to dedicate resources to developing and maintaining mobile apps.

Health organizations of all kinds are part of this near-universal trend. They continue to invest heavily in digital patient engagement, resulting in a steady stream of new apps and better features. Many of these mobile solutions are quite powerful. In many cases, there are few patients can’t do when it comes to managing their healthcare needs on a smartphone. Fact. Mission accomplished, right?

Well, not exactly.

Mobile apps can be great software, but many people struggle with the basic accessibility and usability issues with apps. In order for a patient to use a shiny new mobile app, they must first download the app to their smartphone and then create a secure account to log in. To be HIPAA compliant, many apps come with additional user authentication requirements for login. Once a patient has gone through the various steps to access the app, they still need to figure out how to use it – easier said than done for most people.

For a millennial living in San Francisco, the app onboarding process might just be exercised as muscle memory that has been tapped countless times. But for most people, especially those who use healthcare more frequently, the path to mobile digital engagement is frustrating, if not impossible.

The “friction” of access and usability presents an opposing force that many do not want to overcome and is the enemy of large-scale digital consumer engagement. Every industry deals with it. However, healthcare also faces a difficult mix of complexity, regulations, and data privacy when it comes to patient-facing technologies. This is one of the reasons the industry lags so far behind when it comes to large-scale digital engagement.

Nor is there a single app for all health needs. A person may be able to use the Amazon app to manage every step of the purchase and fulfillment process. A patient with a chronic disease may need a different application portfolio from different entities in their care network, each presenting their own unique set of access barriers.

It’s no wonder that patient engagement rates in mobile apps have always hovered between 5-10%. In a recent consumer surveyonly 7% of adults said they regularly communicate with their healthcare providers on mobile apps, which is quite shocking given that the industry has been investing heavily in mobile apps for over a decade.

Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a virtual moment for the healthcare industry. The growth of virtual care during the pandemic is well documented. Mobile apps (and other virtual services) have been rolled out, often positioned as the only route to care. What years of marketing couldn’t accomplish was handled by a cruel aspect of mother nature.

As the pandemic gradually fades, there are signs that patients are returning to their old established habits. There are several reports that show double-digit drops in virtual care numbers.

So, let’s recap where things stand today:

  • Smartphones are ubiquitous, most consumers own them and depend on them in all aspects of daily life
  • Mobile health apps are powerful but riddled with pain points, so most don’t use them
  • Mobile app engagement rates remain unacceptably low
  • The COVID pandemic has created urgency and opportunity for digital engagement, but the business as usual strategy continues – pushing mobile apps that patients don’t want to use

Now what?

First, consumers are not going to give up their mobile devices. With each new version, the power increases and the price decreases. The problem for innovators is in the software.

There are hundreds of millions of mobile apps available for download and most of them are useless or unused. Among the more than 300,000 mobile healthcare apps, do we clearly see a winner? The answer is no.”

Here is the good news. Mobile technology goes beyond “app” and into the next phase of innovation. Language is a key innovation, the next-generation user interface that will redefine the interactions between humans and machines. Siri and Alexa are prime examples.

A new category of technologies is emerging, often referred to as conversational AI. Rather than requiring users to download, create accounts, and navigate a dizzying array of menus and buttons, the devices simply communicate with users. If someone asks Siri to play Riders on the Storm by The Doors, it works. Retail transactions are also becoming conversational. “Alexa, add a 3-pack of Ivory soaps to my cart” is no longer science fiction.

For health-related processes, things get more complicated. Playing a song is cool, but also technologically easy. Registering for a visit to a health clinic, completing admission paperwork, and navigating to the correct facility adds countless layers of complexity, but is also increasingly possible.

A patient can use the built-in functionality of their smartphone to interact with doctors, pharmacists, drug manufacturers, and insurers. Smart, interactive messaging can navigate a range of workflows, from simple items like instructions to long-term treatment regimens for medication adherence. There are no apps to download, no passwords to remember. The only prerequisite is to know how to spell, in any language.

The healthcare industry is transforming smartphones into digital health assistants capable of handling a wide range of time-consuming tasks. Patients win because they are relieved of the paperwork and confusion that usually comes with healthcare. The industry wins by having an unlimited number of digital workers who can take on all the simple and redundant tasks that were once handled by their employees.

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