... but should there be? The following article from HealthLeaders Media points out that having an app for your hospital or healthcare provider is a good idea only if it actually does something of value for the users. I agree. I know I've downloaded apps (usually something golf related) that look cool ... but don't really do anything. Eventually I delete them altogether.
"There's no reason to have [a smartphone] appunless it's meaningful for the user," says a former vice president of marketing for a three-hospital nonprofit community health system.
By now, you've heard the ubiquitous phrase, "There's an app for that!" And it's likely true, from teaching toddlers their shapes, to measuring your heart rate, to recording what you say in your sleep. There is mobile application for almost everything.
But some hospital and health system marketers may be tired of hearing the phrase because every time it's uttered, they are reminded that their organization hasn't yet developed an app.
But that might not be a bad thing. Jim Rattray, who developed a smartphone app for New Bedford, MA–based Southcoast Health System when he was vice president of marketing for the three-hospital nonprofit community health system, says an app needs to solve a specific problem.
As an admitted early adopter of technology, he wanted Southcoast to jump on the app bandwagon with the iPhone's debut back in 2007. "On one hand I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we had an app?' but, on the other hand, I didn't want to just put something out there," he says. "There's no reason to have an app unless it's meaningful for the user."
Now an independent consultant, Rattray says if hospitals approach the decision process with how the patient can and will use the app, then it becomes a tool that can not only solve a problem, but it can also enhance patient engagement.
"One of our biggest issues was medication reconciliation. It dawned on me when I was taking my mother to the doctor that she had a tattered list of her medications, some were even out of date," says Rattray.
"There were a lot of apps to keep track of your medication. We wanted to combine that with information about Southcoast."
So, in 2011, Southcoast introduced its free app to iPhone users. Called, SouthcoastMyHealth, it's a prescription tracker that allows users to keep up with medication for multiple people. In addition to the prescription name and dosage, there are also reminders as well as a field to enter in the prescribing doctor, pharmacy, phone number, and other key health information, such as allergies. It's like a mini-medical record for the user.
It sounds simple, but it solves a complex problem, one I lived through with an ailing grandfather who was in and out of the hospital. Every time he came home, his prescriptions changed, as did the dosages and frequency. I was also just one of several people helping to take care of him. Rattray, who was experiencing a similar issue with his mother during the app's development keyed in on this and thought his solution would be helpful.
"There is a built-in sharing function. You can email the list of medications and key health information [to others]," he says. "For example, I would go to the doctor with my mother, and when the doctor changed the dosage on a medication, I could change it and email my sister. More and more people have smartphones. We decided the sharing function would be the one feature that would incent people to keep the app on their phone."
It sure sounds better than the ad hoc Post-It note schedule we laid out on my grandmother's kitchen counter.
"This isn't the most powerful app in the world," says Rattray. "But it does one thing really well."
The app got to 1,000 downloads in six months. Two years later, it's been downloaded 10,000 times.
"Most apps might get 500–1,000 downloads, so when we went over a 1,000 I was ecstatic, when we went over 5,000, I was over the moon," Rattray says.
Giving a patient a tool that helps them solve a specific problem gives them a reason to actively engage with your health system. In some ways, SouthcoastMyHealth is similar to a physician locator, which many hospitals focus on as part of their website and app, but the Southcoast app digs deeper, though there is also a physician finder and a news feed, but that's not the app's focus.
The app simply attempts to have prescription information in an easily accessible place that can be shared with others who need to be informed.
But, don't let its simplicity app fool you. There was very careful planning about who specifically the user was likely to be. Knowing that women control most healthcare decisions, Rattray says the app was developed for the mom, the caretaker, and the spouse.
"We are about 65–70 % Medicare/Medicaid. I wasn't expecting everyone on Medicare to carry the iPhone, but I thought their children might. So we developed the app for a female, aged 30–50."
As a person who is a spouse, mother, and former caretaker (my grandfather passed away late last year), I know that when I want a new doctor, I employ several sources, such as word of mouth referrals, online ratings, and network coverage. So, the availability of an app may figure into my decision about which doctor to choose, but maybe not.
However, when I need a solution to a specific problem, like letting my grandmother know that my grandfather's doctor changed dosages on one of his prescriptions, I do what works quickest, hence the Post-It note solution. Had the hospital he frequented offered some sort of app, it's likely we would have used it.
Another issue that was solved for Southcoast was getting patients used to technology without creating privacy issues. "SouthCoast has no access to the data," says Rattray. "The patient puts their information in, and it is stored in their phone. There is no privacy issue at all."
Apps now do not have the novelty they once did, but with smartphones seen as a must-have instead of a nice-to-have, a well-designed app that helps patients solve a specific problem may be the first step toward having them think of a hospital or health system as a partner instead of a place.
Jacqueline Fellows, for HealthLeaders Media is the author of this article.Copyright © 2013 Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC. All Rights Reserved.