Mobile health requires grasping smartphone, user connection

GPS, social media and mobile applications are also being incorporated into health-care providers' wireless plans

Health-care providers looking to implement a mobile strategy need to understand the strong bond people have with their smartphones, said panelists Friday at the World Congress' Summit on mHealth in Boston.

"There is nothing more personal than a mobile phone," said Julie Kling, the mobile executive business lead at health-care provider Humana. "The phone is a personal tool and you need to use it in that way."

This means respecting barriers that people have set up and creating a mobile plan that only promotes the most relevant information, she said. Customers wanted Humana's iPhone application to offer member identification card information as the first option, and the program was changed to reflect that request.

Privacy laws restrict personalization, though.

For instance, Humana cannot send a text message to a specific member reminding her about setting up a mammogram, Kling said. Instead the provider can use a more generic message that reminds the customer that breast cancer awareness month is coming up.

"We have to target a person but say it in a way that pleases the privacy officer," she said.

Robert Havasy, an analyst with Partners Healthcare System's Center for Connected Health, also discussed the importance of personalization in mobile health.

His organization tested a program that used text messages to improve care for pregnant teenagers and addicts.

"We believe that text messaging is effective," he said. "The goal was to see if this could work in a more challenging environment."

His organization sent out one or two messages a week that reminded patients about appointments or to make plans for how to get to the hospital to deliver their babies.

The message's wording proved important to the program's success, he said. The texts began by saying they were from a specific doctor instead of using a more generic greeting.

This personalization helped the program, with 92 percent of participants reporting that they felt more connected to the health center. The SMS (short message service) system also reduced administrative tasks and "replaced phone calls that an already overburdened staff was making," he said.

Tim Kieschnick, Kaiser Permanente's director of the user experience in the Internet Services Group, advocated a mobile strategy that offers pertinent user information.

"The Internet makes a huge difference, but the laws of economics still apply," he said. "We need to get grounded in reality. Who are the users, what do they need?"

His organization's mobile strategy emphasizes completing simple transactions with a high value, like appointment reminders and handling prescription refills.

When developing its mobile strategy, UnitedHealth Group also reviewed its Internet health efforts.

"We looked at the portal space and tried not to make the same mistakes with mobile," said Bud Flagstad, vice president of strategic initiatives at the health-care provider. "When you log in, you get what you want."

The use of social media, GPS and applications are popular trends for smartphones and UnitedHealth has incorporated this technology into its mobile plan. One application uses a phone's GPS function to locate a doctor close to a person's location. Another uses GPS to map a walking route and allows the user to challenge their friends to walk. He said health applications are already popular, and adding a social media component increases their adoption.

"Applications must be useful," Flagstad said. "You want them to do more than mimic the Web portal."

A possible future use of a smartphone's GPS abilities, Flagstad said, would allow health-care companies to recognize that a patient was at a doctor's office. The care provider could then electronically submit the appropriate medical information to the physician.

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