Amongst emerging channels for healthcare engagement, mobile devices are still very much at the ‘emerging’ end of healthcare engagement. That is not to say that many great applications don’t exist; but I believe the full potential of mobile for healthcare has yet to be realised.

Mobile health, or ‘mHealth’, covers an extensive scope of platforms and applications, creating many new opportunities exist for enhancing patient care, extending the reach of patient support, and equipping physicians.

A huge range of health-related apps already exist for the iPhone alone – designed to help people stay healthy, support patients living with disease, increase health literacy, manage medical information, and support medicine compliance to name just a few applications.

In this article I will review some mHealth iPhone apps and briefly consider the role of engagement strategy in mHealth.

WebMD Mobile

A plethora of self-diagnosis apps exist for the iPhone, from ‘Stress Check’ to ‘Vision-Test’ or ‘Ear Test’. Should healthcare professionals worry that the iPhone will put them out of a job? I don’t think so – even with some of the most comprehensive medical diagnosis apps, my analysis would indicate that reliable diagnosis is unlikely.

A popular diagnosis app is WebMD Mobile, partner app to the WebMD website. Its Symptom Checker tool includes an intuitive interface allowing users to locate symptoms and answer series of related questions. In our simple tests it was quick to diagnose a painful knee as possible Shingles or Multiple Sclerosis.

WebMD Mobile’s symptom checker

WebMD Mobile’s symptom checker

Of course the application is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. In fact, the first item in WebMD Mobile’s Terms and Conditions of use states that “WebMD Mobile Does Not Provide Medical Advice”.

In our tests, WebMD Mobile’s possible conditions for a painful knee were somewhat alarming

In our tests, WebMD Mobile’s possible conditions for a painful knee were somewhat alarming

WebMD has taken an interesting approach with WebMD Mobile and it is difficult to identify the application’s strategic benefit. Its functionality is significantly limited when compared to WebMD’s website, which can be used by any iPhone user with Internet access and includes community features and extensive up to date editorial content. WebMD Mobile seems to have missed the opportunity to extend the reach or scope of service through an iPhone app that could have built on WebMD’s reputation to provide useful personal tools. The app does include a feature to locate local health services such as a physician, pharmacy or hospital although this service is only available for users in the United States.

SOS 4 Life

Some of the most popular mHealth applications are those that enhance users’ lifestyle, especially when living with disease. There are many iPhone apps designed to help people to live with disease – at the time of writing, for example, iPhone’s App Store returns 186 possible apps in a search for ‘diabetes’.

We have written many times in Healthcare Engagement Strategy about the need for translation in a global healthcare context. So I was excited to learn about SOS 4 Life, an iPhone app that translates your medical information into any of seven languages.

Designed to support patients whilst travelling, the app allows users to enter essential medical information such as personal details, emergency contact information, health conditions, known adverse reactions, and medications. The interface and patient data are then displayed in any selected language.

SOS4Life translates essential medical information

SOS4Life translates essential medical information

The app is well rated by iPhone users, and SOS4Life claims the application will soon be available for Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Android.

AirStrip OB

Much has been said about the extent to which digital platforms such as the Internet and mobile devices are changing healthcare by empowering patients. But some interesting examples demonstrate the role of mHealth in supporting physicians too.
AirStrip OB is an app for Obstetricians, providing waveform data such as fetal heartbeat and maternal contraction patterns onto an iPhone. Or to put it another way, as the app describes itself on Apple iTunes, “AirStrip OB is intended for use by Obstetricians who deliver babies”.

AirStrip OB’s monitoring interface

AirStrip OB’s monitoring interface

The app integrates with a hospital-based system that sends data to the iPhone, allowing real-time monitoring of patients when the doctor is not at their side. As Dr Marco Giannotti, Obstetrics and Gynecology, The Woodlands Hospital says about AirStrip OB, “It fundamentally changes the way I’m able to interact with labor and delivery.”

AirStrip OB provides real-time maternal waveform data to obstetricians

AirStrip OB provides real-time maternal waveform data to obstetricians

Defining a strategy for mHealth applications

If thinking about these iPhone apps has given you an appetite for mHealth, hopefully it has also started you thinking about what makes a successful application.

If you’re looking to develop a strategy for mHealth, my advice is that you do not. Do not set out to create an mHealth strategy. Doing so would ‘put the cart before the horse’, as they say. The result is likely to be just one more app amidst the vast number of pointless mobile apps released every week.

The key to successful healthcare engagement is to focus on your goals, and the engagement strategy, before the platform or channel. It may sound boring, but it will force you to think about what you really want to achieve.

Yes, you certainly should consider the characteristics of emerging channels including mobile applications. Tools such as location-based services, touch-screen interfaces, voice controls, and HD video all have the potential to help you achieve your goals in new ways. But if you start with features like these they may rapidly become a distraction from your real goals.

Creation Healthcare’s [intlink id=”services” type=”page”]Discovery Methodology[/intlink] for informed strategy development helps healthcare companies and organisations to define engagement strategies that really do achieve business goals using emerging channels, and to measure the accomplishment of these goals. Why not [intlink id=”contact” type=”page”]speak with us[/intlink] about how we could help you?

Daniel Ghinn will be speaking at mHealth Conference in Dubai, 13-15 September 2010.