Smartphones take wellness engagement to new levels

Anyone doubting the sustainability and projected growth of mobile technology should take heed of these statistics from technology and communication leaders Qualcomm Life and Virgin HealthMiles:

* There will be more mobile devices by the end of 2012 than there are people in the world.

* More people will have access to mobile devices than currently have access to clean water, electricity or toothbrushes.

* Most people are never further than three feet from their smartphone, 24 hours a day.

Combine such accessibility with innovations in wellness plan design, and you have a mobile wellness revolution on your hands - or in them. In fact, by 2020, 160 million Americans will be monitored and treated for medical conditions remotely, according to Qualcomm Life.

"We're now, in health care, coming of age to really begin to leverage technology, and even more so how to leverage the power of prevention in the wireless world that we're in," says Dr. Ron Loeppke, vice chairman, U.S. Preventive Medicine, Inc. "These mobile apps that are emerging are going to be a predominant part of how health care is delivered going forward."


Health data in hand

According to Mike Mulvihill, CEO of health care technology company Orcas, there are more than 12,000 mobile health apps on the market. A staggering number that's only expected to grow over the next few years, as much as half of all medical care moves out of the brick-and-mortar model into what the company refers to as "brick-less" care. "People will be using self-management, mobile health applications for everyday kinds of medical health- and wellness-type issues," says Mulvihill.

To meet the coming demand, U.S. Preventive Medicine, in partnership with Qualcomm Life, built a mobile health app called Macaw that integrates other wireless devices and wireless mobile health apps such as blood pressure monitors, glucometers and weight scales into one program. The integration attribute is critical, says Loeppke, because too many people are overwhelmed with data.

Macaw aims to stand out from the thousands of other apps on the market by assimilating the various data points into a personal health monitoring program that turns the collected information into actionable knowledge through a personalized prevention plan.

When developing its new app, My Mobile Benefits, Buck Consultants made integrating data points a key attribute as well. "It leverages content and resources from wellness vendors into a mobile application branded for the employer - creating an awareness and appreciation for the programs that the employer provides," says Jennifer Whitlow, a principal in the communications practice at Buck.

There are three components to the program: One, users - typically employer groups of 2,500 or more - track their personal health information such as immunizations, allergies and medications; two, access to benefits information for employees to use at the point of service; and three, wellness incentives and information that are linked to rewards such as a premium discount for meeting biometric measurements.

Opening the app up to the larger clients allows Buck to integrate data from a variety of the clients' vendors and populate the app automatically, says Whitlow. Small employers with less data are not shut out, but Whitlow says a more cost-effective solution for such groups is to use a consumer app that Buck created with many of the same features, but it requires more user input.

Before launching any wellness apps for clients, Blue Shield of California tested apps on its own employees through its Wellvolution program, says Bryce Williams, program director, to see what would work and what wouldn't.

Orcas's Mulvihill says the company is seeing "a great deal of interest" in mobile health apps and is "working with several large national health plans putting together their portfolio of wellness-oriented apps, preparing to role them out to their employer groups."

Like Blue Shield of California, Orcas is keeping the apps "simple, social and fun" to build an engagement strategy.

"A lot of wellness programs historically have suffered from low engagement," says Mulvihill. "Employers and health plans have big concerns around how effective is the app, A, and then B, how engaging is it?"


CDHP influence

In preparing their My Mobile Benefits app for the market, Buck put a lot of consideration into the fact that a growing number of employers are switching to consumer-directed health plans that require a lot more employee interaction and engagement in their own health care.

"It's interesting - even across multiple industries a lot of these employers are seeing some of these same types of issues where, again and again, employee engagement can be a challenge," says Whitlow, "and moving to mobile makes a lot of sense."

Particularly for employers that have remote workforces or don't have easy access to a computer on the job, she adds.

Laura Walmsley, chief business development officer at Preventure, agrees. She sees smartphone applications as a "terrific bridge" between paper and online communications. "One of the challenges of the wellness industry as a whole is engaging populations that don't sit in front of a lot of media throughout the day," she says.

For example, using QR codes on things like posters around the workplace will allow employees who have a cellphone, but maybe not computer access, to view content they might otherwise miss.

However, Michael Troup, owner of Forsite Benefits in Green Bay, Wisc., says although his company's wellness program, myInertia, is viewable on a smartphone, when wellness moves to an app-based platform he's concerned about access for those employees who don't have a smartphone.

"Right now I see the advances in smartphone apps growing for individual users, but for a population solution I don't see them working in a corporate environment," Troup says.

"We still run into corporations across the country where not 100% of the employees even have email addresses for our program. Obviously, there would be even a greater number of individuals that do not have smartphones. Therefore, I do not believe that you can get good employee engagement with programs that require a smartphone."

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