Developing Effective Patient-facing Mobile Apps

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Developing Effective Patient-facing Mobile Apps

April 4, 2014 · Posted by Erica N.

Patients have high expectations of mobile health (mHealth). In fact, a recent Economist Intelligence Unit reportfrom PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that more than half of the 1,027 patients surveyed believe the evolution of mHealth will improve the convenience, cost and quality of healthcare.

The big question is whether today’s mobile apps are able to deliver on these expectations.

Consider another report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics that provided analysis of the more than 43,000 healthcare apps available through Apple iTunes. When compared against 25 criteria related to functionality, more than 90 percent of the apps received a score of less than 40 percent.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of apps analyzed fell into the general wellness, exercise and diet category. Yet of the 10,000 apps that provided health information, less than half delivered educational instruction related to a patient’s specific condition. Going forward, those kinds of apps simply will not survive; patients increasingly will look to those that are designed with their needs in mind, that engage them, and that deliver relevant and actionable information.

As the growth of patient-facing mobile apps continues, developers should consider the following 10 characteristics to position their apps for high performance marks and adoption rates:

1. Ensure priorities and end-goals drive design
Before application development begins, developers must work with the healthcare organization to carefully examine its business goals and patient needs. A clear understanding of user experience—in other words, who will use the app, why they will use it, and how they will use it—should drive important choices such as the appropriate platform on which to build.

Keep in mind that app platforms can be native, web-based or hybrid, and that each of these options can be a solid choice depending on a healthcare organization’s priorities. For instance, a native app might be a good choice if users want to access the devices features (accelerometer or camera) or need to access information when there is no connectivity available. Alternatively, web-based apps are the right choice when platform independence is important, or when users need access to a broad array of content through web search engines.

2. Align with user trends
Success with patient adoption of mHealth apps often goes hand-in-hand with what is most familiar to end users. For example, developers who capitalize on tools that are already widely adopted and used in consumer-facing applications—such as JavaScript—will likely be more successful. In other words, avoid the temptation to create a new application programming interface or tool just because it can be done. Often, it makes more sense to go with platforms that already are working because they already are familiar to patients.

3. Keep apps patient-centered and relevant
Is a patient or a patient’s caregiver more likely to access an app? What is the age and demographic make-up of the targeted patient population? Asking these kinds of questions prior to development will help determine the best user interfaces and navigation flows to promote adoption rates. Certain patients, for example, may find mobile apps more appealing while others may opt for a patient portal experience. Knowing those preferences will help developers design apps that are more likely to be used.

4. Address limited health literacy
Patients vary widely in terms of education and learning styles. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recently reported that nearly half of American adults have limited health literacy related to understanding written health information. As a result, the presentation of information within apps matters. Information should be conveyed in an appropriate combination of simple sentence structures, bulleted statements, graphics and other formats that aid understanding for a wide variety of users.

5. Make information actionable and interactive
Providing information merely for information’s sake will not ensure an app’s success. Patients want to first understand their conditions, and then take action based on available opportunities and risks. As such, apps should be designed to walk patients through the evolution of a disease or condition, providing risk assessments and recommendations that take a patient’s personal situation into account. What’s more, using layman’s terms within an app and interactive tools can increase engagement.

6. Offer trustworthy content
The authenticity and accuracy of content is a make-or-break element for mHealth applications. Therefore, content partners should be an asset to an app’s reputation and marketability. To ensure their information is credible, developers of patient-facing healthcare apps should try to partner with well-known, industry-respected resources—Mayo Clinic or the MD Anderson Cancer Center, for instance—that will readily put patients at ease.

7. Create a patient community
When faced with an illness or disease, patients do not want to feel like they are facing the future alone. For this reason, apps should be designed to allow patients to interact with one another, helping them feel comfortable, engaged and part of a supportive community.

8. Provide access to professionals
Complementary to feeling part of a community is an app’s ability to allow patients to interact with healthcare professionals. Mobile apps that enable interactions with the experts behind the “content” will elevate relevancy and long-term appeal. However, having the appropriate professionals available to chat or provide timely email responses will require a well-thought out strategy with appropriate partners.

9. Engage in thorough testing before go-live
It’s been said that usability testing will happen one way or another—either before the technology is available to the user or, in a less ideal scenario, after. To avoid any hiccups following go-live, a mobile app should undergo multiple rounds of testing leveraging different end users to ensure all of the kinks are worked out well before the technology appears on the market. As an app’s adoption rate often is directly related to first impressions, testing will increase the app’s chances of being adopted and regularly used by consumers.

10. Enable interaction with other applications
Empowering patients to obtain a complete picture of their healthcare is a foundational component of the mHealth movement. To that end, applications that link with other apps to consolidate health data and allow patients to build their own health libraries can help fuel a more patient-centered approach to care.

Mobile health applications hold great promise for patients and providers alike. By following these ten tenets, developers may soon be able to deliver on that promise and begin to transform the delivery of care.

About the Authors:
Erica W. Newcomb, MS-HCI, CSM, is the Director of User Experience and Scott Frederick, RN, BSN, MSHI, is the Director of Clinical Insight for PointClear Solutions.

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