james bond, sexy, sean conneryIn James Bond Movies, the good guys win thanks to the right combination between astute comprehension of the human factor, and kick-ass technology. In the world of mobile healthcare, it seems, we have not yet reached this break-even point.

The Mobile Healthcare Communications Conference was launched last year by Steve Etzler, marking the industry's baby steps in this arena. Well-intentioned, but baby steps nonetheless, directed at creating a presence in social media, and hoping for the best. This year's conference displayed greater market maturity and some promising technological ideas or even platforms designed to assist patients better control their conditions.

Yet patients are not coming, or at least not by the bulk. Not to platforms that require their ongoing active participation. And when they do come,  enter the platform, download the app or experience the gadget, they do not always stay there. What is often lacking, it seems, is the decision science input and insights that would make the user experience fun, rewarding, even addictive. This would result in greater numbers of patients joining programs and actually staying on them for extended periods of time, and, hopefully, in better health outcomes.

How do we accomplish that - how do we go beyond mobile or othertechnology to ensure patient engagement is the question discussed at the roundtable I hosted at the conference.  Interestingly enough, is seemed like most health executives already know the answer, at least when it relates to their own experience. When I probed them about their favorite apps, they were excited to share, and almost always related to features that evoked some emotion. Because emotion, rather than information, is a great motivator. 

'I'm a runner, so I use runner's log'one attendee said, a CEO of company dealing with employee wellness programs.  His eyes were bright with excitement such as one rarely sees when a patient discusses their blood pressure or food log. This habit, which now means you cannot run without logging the information, is every marketer's dream. It is, of course, harder to say 'I'm a diabetic', than 'I'm a runner', but once you tap into the right motivation of identity, you've struck gold. An attendee from a prominent public relations marketing firm, who is originally from Pittsburg, said he loves an app that helps him find radio stations, both from his home town and from New York. So personalization is important to users, as was also evident by the fact that many referred to Pandora as their favorite app - it allows you to listen to music you like, modify preferences, and be surprised without stepping outside your comfort zone. All this with zero need for complex definitions - Pandora just asks you to tell it in your own words what song or artist you like. It takes it from there. So ease of use is definitely a must, even for such a savvy audience. Yet another conference attendee, new to NYC, swore by an app which tells her where to go for certain stores, Thai food, etc., in her immediate surroundings. You should have seen the smile on her face when she explained how it instantly helped her feel like a local. How many medical apps give you this kind of immediate gratification? Not enough of them, probably.

Some app and mobile features got it right. Or at least potentially so. Roche's Todd Siesky presented the free ‘Testing in Pairs' app, which helps patients compare measurements before and after eating certain foods, exericing etc. Patients can tell the app what they want to learn, for example - the effect of breakfast on their blood sugar level. It is very cool indeed and I would love to see more data on usage over time, as well as how it has been affecting blood sugar levels.Pfizer's Kate Bird presented Protonix Mobile co-pay program where patients on this medication can text the word PRO to receive a $4 discount coupon directly at their smart phone. They are then invited to receive refill reminders and automatic refills from the company.  This is a great example of an instant reward - the coupon, ease of use (no need to print out the coupon), and further engagement with the program through the automatic refills. All with very few painless clicks which provide an answer for a real need - of getting one's medication. Patients are relatively passive here, and in fact this is what the program is based on - creating defaults and procedures that allow people to sit back while Pfizer does it all for them.

Other programs encounter greater challenges, as they need patients' ongoing active involvement such as with entering blood glucose level or reporting what they ate. True, these programs offer value in terms of information and education, yet they might not have that addictive element yet, that hook which makes people go back and log on with the same zeal that our runner friend displayed in logging his running data. This is where us decision scientists fit it, and this, I believe, will help bring about the evolution in mobile healthcare that we will  doubtlessly witness in next year's conference.

About the Author

Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D.

Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D., is CEO of CureMyWay, and Associate Professor, founder of the Center for Medical Decision Making, Ono Academic College

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