Engaging Patients with Your mHealth Platform: Part 1

From tracking food intake to recording how many steps they take in a day, people are using smartphones to do just about everything, health wise. Yet, even as the number of smartphone-equipped individuals with health on the brain continues to rise, getting individuals engaged in changing their health remains a huge challenge for healthcare providers.

Case in point: In the Commonwealth Fund’s 2013 survey of 200 health leaders at urban and rural community health centers and clinics that offer services to low-income people, including those without insurance, 86%, or 155 of 181 respondents, reported that patient engagement has been challenging. This is particularly true in areas related to the adoption of healthy behaviors and compliance with standard care recommendation and treatment protocols. When asked which areas organizations would like to more effectively engage patients, 89% said chronic disease management.

However, while most health apps are equipped with cool tools and graphics, not all of them are truly engaging individuals, or helping them to feel invested in their health, thus motivated to achieve their goals.

Therefore, engaging patients with mobile devices means more than recommending they download another app that lets them log in their calories. Patients need to feel connected to their health, their physician and their outcomes.

One way mobile health platforms can bolster individuals’ app usage this is by offering a user-friendly interface. Patients download apps all the time, but whether they use them is largely tied to whether they are cumbersome or easy (and fun!) to use. Before recommending a mobile app to a patient, a healthcare provider should give it a test run: Is it clean and free of excess clutter and advertisements? Does it offer fun and usable extras such as daily nutrition tips, or low-sugar recipes for diabetic patients? Is food logging a tedious experience — filled with confusing measurements and widely varying information — or a joyous one that takes little time out of the day?

The answers to these questions can make all the difference in determining a user’s engagement level.

A second feature of mobile health apps that encourages engagement is the app’s “group” component, or function that lets one user connect to several other likeminded individuals in a virtual community. By utilizing group functions such as “chat” or messaging, users feel a greater accountability for their health goals, and like they are part of a team.

New research supports this, including a March 2014 study of more than 8,000 adults on behavioral weight loss interventions using Noom’s smartphone technology (sponsored by Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine). For the study, researchers looked at weight loss for users of a non-pro app, and a pro app (one that featured self-monitoring of weight and caloric intake, coaching on diet and exercise, daily articles and challenges related to weight loss, a library of healthy recipes and group support). A mixed effects model indicated that pro versus non-pro users lost significantly more weight. Those who accessed the “group” support feature also experienced a greater BMI change than those who didn’t access a group feature.

While preliminary, these results suggest that individualized guidance through smartphone apps, supplemented by group support, might yield more successful weight loss than individual efforts.

Having a group to connect with encourages individuals to share positive developments, challenges, and successes, while ultimately helping them to feel more engaged in their care. And that’s a good thing for providers who are looking for ways to help their patients follow their recommendations between visits.