Health On The Go: A Review of Mobile Applications

Mobile health, also referred to as mHealth, has delivered an important number of platforms and applications (apps) via mobile devices in the past two years. Euromonitor International takes a peek at innovative mHealth initiatives that will influence self-care in the future.

The divide on mHealth adoption

The impact of mHealth on underserved populations has been very positive. These people are gaining access to medical care in a relatively inexpensive and efficient form of communication. Industry trends reveal that the divide in the adoption of mHealth is no longer based on income or race; rather the divide is mostly seen between older and younger generations. The elderly population struggles to understand and adopt digital communication. For many of them, the thought of computers or smartphones can be intimidating. Ironically, they are the population with the most need of self-care support.

Thousands of health and wellness applications are available for upload in mobile devices. The globalisation of digital technology and internet access has opened a wide door to these applications as consumers from all regions in the world can download them. An estimated 80 out of 100 inhabitants hold a mobile cellular telephone subscription as a global average, while 30 out of 100 are users of the internet according to the most recent statistics released by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) World Telecommunication (ICT indicators database 2010).

Mobile application customisation

In the race of developing mobile health apps, companies are using interesting differentiators as a competitive advantage. Targeted apps by gender, age group, product, lifestyle and retailing options are moving aside to make room for even more sophisticated and complex apps highly customised based on an individual’s behaviour. This approach is quite attractive as individuals can feel more engaged as if the app was developed especially for them.

Health mobile apps have exploded in number and now companies face the challenge of standing out. Consumers can become confused on what mobile app to choose. This may be particularly problematic for consumer health companies who wish to compete against apps with no corporate ties. Just browsing the mobile apps at the internet retailers of Apple and Amazon can be overwhelming in terms of health-related apps available. Companies have to rely in traditional mass media and newly created social networks to generate awareness about their apps.

Mobile applications review     

New mobile apps also target a diverse set of end-users ranging from governments, health organizations, companies, retailers and consumers.

From a government point of view, the W3C Mobile Web Initiative (MobiWebApp project – European Union Seventh Framework Programme – FP7/2010-2012)) has become an international effort to help governments adopt mobile technology. Some of the initiatives include improved communications between governments and their citizens related to public health.

In terms of health organizations, HealthATM is a pilot programme that uses an app platform to promote self-care from a community-based point of view. This app initiative links local clinics with underserved populations, who tend to have problems tracking their health conditions. The app is simple to use and can be accessed via kiosks if consumers do not have access to the internet.

In the corporate context, Keas Workplace Health and Fitness Programs introduced “The Power of Play”, a social game app that employers use to encourage health and wellness activities among their employees. Teams of employees compete against each other in the “Keas Challenge” to reach health-related goals and earn points in a fun social environment promoting camaraderie and peers support.

In another corporate development, The Ford Motor Co, partnered with WellDoc Inc in May 2011 to test an in-car mobile app to inform allergy sufferers about pollen counts and help diabetics follow up with their treatment. The app is not yet available to consumers.

Augme Technologies Inc is an eMarketing company offering Ad Life, an app platform used to promote OTC brands and delivery customisation. Leading companies such as Pfizer Inc, with mobile sweepstakes app for Advil Congestion Relief, Weight Watchers International Inc with the app Weight Watchers Kitchen Companion, and The Procter& Gamble Co, with My Beauty Advisor, are examples of companies engaging consumers in the mHealth environment.

Novelties for the consumer include Basis (Basis Inc), a wristband prototype that connects with an app in mobile devices to track caloric intake, physical activity and sleeping patterns. The app will provide consumers with an overview of their day in terms of health and wellness that can be shared with others in social media platforms.

Cloud technology now links health technologies of electronic health records (EHR) and personal health records (PHR). For example, MotherKnows is a prototype PHR app specialised in paediatrics, where parents will have quick access to their children’s health records.

New regulations on the horizon

A new draft guidance introduced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in July 2011 will exclude non-medical mobile apps used to log, track, evaluate, or make decisions for maintaining general health and wellness, as long as they are not intended to cure, treat, or diagnose a specific health condition. Medical mobile apps used as medical devices or containing medical images of a condition will have to go through the regulatory process established for medical devices.

The new draft guidance will not necessarily affect current mobile apps in the consumer health setting. In fact, several companies such as Prestige Brands Holdings already use disclaimers stating that their PediaCare app is only informational, and not intended for a medical diagnosis.

Other challenges ahead

Issues of confidentiality and safety will continue to attract the attention of regulatory agencies. The involvement of pharmaceutical, telecommunications and advertising regulators will be necessary to ensure consumer safety.

The improvement of encryption technologies will needed as to protect personal information, especially since confidentiality could be compromised in the sharing of information among several entities (health organizations, the medical community, companies and retailers) in a cloud format.

The initial enthusiasm of companies in the launch of mobile apps for their brands and products can potentially fade by the “dropping” effect, or the failure to maintain engaged consumers. The challenge in the mobile app path will be the creation of a valuable tool that will be difficult for consumers to give up. The basic marketing principles of building loyalty and positioning need to shift to the digital world.