Of the over 165,000 health and wellness apps available, only 36 of them account for nearly half of all downloads. What’s wrong with mHealth, and what can we do to fix it?
So Many Apps, So Little Value
A new study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics confirms what we’ve all felt: Despite the proliferation of apps for consumers and patients, their usefulness for the maintenance of health and the diagnosis, treatment, management, and prevention of disease remains extremely limited. App stores are awash with nearly every kind of health and wellness app imaginable, but sheer numbers mask the reality that most of these apps have minimal utility, and even fewer downloads. Consider:
- Over 50% of mHealth apps continue to have limited to no functionality, most simply providing information
- Less than 1 in 10 apps connects to a device or a sensor
- Less than 1 in 50 apps have connectivity and communication with provider healthcare systems
- More than 40% of apps have fewer than 5,000 downloads
The study does an excellent job of identifying and confirming why. While a mounting body of clinical research continues to build verifying the effectiveness of mhealth to reduce costs and improve nutrition, wellness, mental health, and perioperative care, engagement remains low due to limited connectivity and integration; challenges with reimbursement and access; uncertainties with privacy, security, and regulatory; limited scientific evidence; and trouble reaching elderly and non-English speaking patients.
The role pharma could or should play in consumer mHealth is also hotly contested. Unbranded or branded? Disease education or treatment-specific? Patients, caregivers, or both? Integrated or stand-alone? Pharma-created or partnered? Limited or expanded functionality? Another study from smartpatient generated this revealing infographic, demonstrating equally harrowing levels of functionality, connectivity, and user engagement for patient-focused pharma apps in 2015:
Reviewing such sobering statistics, the question arises: Why bother? With the app space so crowded, the cost of entry so high, and relative levels of functionality and interoperability so low, one would think that alternatives to a pharma app would be much more beneficial to a brand. After all, if 48% of all pharma apps merely present content, that purpose could far more expeditiously be served with other digital properties, such as an online destination. And with downloads so low, a media campaign is likely far more efficient and economical.
As this chart from the IMS study suggests, hurdles to the widespread prescribing of mHealth apps are complex, but essentially centered around relevance, effectiveness, and connectivity. One touch point of many, an app at best is but a single component of an integrated, multichannel communications infrastructure. To be relevant the app must fulfill brand goals and address audience needs; to be effective it must have multidimensional functionality; and to be connected it must be seamlessly integrated within a patient’s health system:
Although the number of patient and caregiver apps has more than doubled in the past two years, progress in terms of realizing these goals has been slow. In terms of dimensional functionality, more than half of today’s consumer mHealth apps do little more than offer information, few capture data or provide actionable recommendations, with the least growth seen in the area where these apps need it the most: facilitating and encouraging communication between healthcare providers and patients.
So how do we make mHealth for consumers healthy again?
Fixing What’s Broke
Challenges facing health and wellness apps in general—and pharma apps in particular—beg the question of why and how these apps are designed, developed, and distributed. The tsunami of available apps, coupled with lack of user guidance or industry standards, has created this Wild Wild West of too many apps that do too little for too few. As pharma marketers and communicators, our job is to solve problems, not create them. So instead of leaping headlong into the space, perhaps we first need to align our strategy and tactics:
- Ensure Relevance
- “To app, or not to app…?” The existential question seems obvious, but isn’t asked enough. An app is ideal for providing an interactive, dynamic, connected, measured, and localized experience for users; but if your app is meant to merely deliver information—unbranded or branded—to patients, then other forms of digital media could prove eminently more efficient and worthwhile. In few channels is form more closely blended with function, the medium with the message: If can you accomplish your brand goals without an app, please do.
- Ensure Engagement
- Let’s say your brand goals, available resources, and sympathetic regulators enable the development of a truly multidimensional app, one that offers instructions, displays and captures users data, provides guidance and recommendations, blasts alerts, and compliantly connects healthcare providers with patients—the app can still fall flat if your patients have limited awareness and access, or if they fail to understand the personal benefit. So begin with the end-user in mind, and keep the patient at the center of why and how you app.
- Ensure Safety
- Protect your brand, and protect your patients. The boundary between “health and wellness app” and “mobile medical device” can be a subtle one, so familiarity with FDA guidance is key. Apps also ratchet-up the complexity of branded communications compliance, less screen area and heightened interactivity making the display of necessary fair balance an ongoing challenge. And in terms of privacy and security, apps de facto expose developers and users to increased accountability, vulnerability, and risk. So think before you app!
Summary and Suggestions
As we’ve seen, most mHealth apps have limited utility and even less ROI. That’s because no app is an island—they should always be but a component of a patient engagement ecosystem. As such, an app is merely a tactic within a much broader strategic approach to connecting, engaging, and converting your target audience with a digital resource they urgently need, simply understand, and eagerly use. Short of that your app is a bundle of code that at best becomes a statistic, and at worst jeopardizes your security or theirs.
That need for seamless connection and interoperability extends into healthcare stakeholder relationships, too. Exactly as apps must eventually become fully integrated into delivery systems, all vested players from app developers to regulators, institutions, payers, health systems, providers, and patients need to partner and work together to overcome industry barriers and capitalize on the incredible potential of digital health. mHealth can be healed and mature when all stakeholders understand their role and fulfill their vital call to action.
Klick is uniquely positioned to help connect the mHealth dots. An ideation incubator and industry connector, we help drive innovation and help brand stewards navigate the tumultuous but exciting waters of the healthcare system. Along the way we provide expertise in every area of commercialization from clinical trial recruitment through launch, adherence programs to patient advocacy and outreach. Without that synergy even the simplest app can fail; and with it the most sophisticated communications strategies realize their full potential.