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Hospital Apps: Five Enhancements for Better Mobile Engagement
December 03, 2018

Hospital Apps: Five Enhancements for Better Mobile Engagement

Randy Tomlin is CEO and Chairman of the Board for MobileSmith. In his position, Randy directs the company’s strategic growth and operational excellence, and is responsible for the successful proliferation of the company’s mobile app technologies throughout the healthcare spectrum.
For hospitals and other healthcare professionals, mobile apps represent the future of healthcare communication. If your facility isn’t already using apps or isn’t seriously evaluating them, your organization is behind the adoption curve.

The reasons to use mobile apps are compelling:
  • Nearly one-half of the U.S. population was born after 1980, and their familiarity with and preference for technology are well-known.
  • Consumer use of health apps for mobile or tablets has tripled from 16% in 2014 to 48% in 2018.
  • A 2014 survey shows that between 55% and 69% of respondents who use online health tools frequently report increased satisfaction. As apps become more sophisticated and targeted, satisfaction scores likely will rise.
  • About 7% of patients have switched providers due to poor customer experience, a switch rate comparable to hotels and home phone service companies. Accenture analysis pegs a 7% switch rate to a $100 million annual loss per hospital.
Despite the strong need for healthcare providers to develop apps to stay connected to patients, the prospect of developing an app can be scary. Not only are there potential concerns with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), developing apps is not a core competency for health systems and providers.

Fortunately, providers don’t have to create apps from scratch. Blueprint- or template-based products are available that allow providers to use their own content and branding to create apps that resonate with users and have been proven to increase efficiency, preserve revenue dollars, and satisfy increasingly demanding patients.

When evaluating app products or developing apps, keep these 5 characteristics of a compelling patient app in mind:

1. Personalize as much as possible

Whether personalized for an individual patient or a specific visit type (maternity or perioperative, for example), patients want to quickly access the information they need. Keep in mind that not every app needs to exchange protected health information (PHI), which would subject it to tighter HIPAA privacy and security rules. Health systems or providers might want to start with a non-HIPAA app.

Using a maternity app as an example, a woman only needs to enter her due date, which does not trigger HIPAA. Based on the due date, the woman learns about the development milestones the fetus is experiencing that week. She can schedule a hospital tour and begin research on a pediatrician. As her time nears, she can access information about signs of labor and when to go to the hospital. Following delivery, a nurse can go over after-care instructions and discharge details on the patient’s phone.

As a provider becomes more comfortable with app development, more complex apps can be built that might require HIPAA security and privacy protocols. This means choosing a vendor with expertise in exchanging information in secure environments is crucial.

2. Less is more in app design

It’s far better to tailor an app to a specific audience than to build and maintain a one-size-fits-all app. Pregnancy is a very different experience than bariatric surgery and the patient’s needs, expectations, and points of engagement will be similarly different.

While apps can share some commonality (general wayfinding, perhaps), they should provide targeted information to a targeted patient group. Don’t overthink an app, either. Consider the top 2 or 3 challenges or opportunities a particular patient group faces and then determine how an app can help.

At the same time, don’t overlook the ways an app can help your business. Appointment reminders benefit patients by making sure they show up, which reduces the amount of no-shows that can increase costs to providers.

3. Make it easy to be dynamic

App users are very forgiving—as long as the app works, so the user interface and functionality are important. But keeping content up-to-date can be a challenge if your organization has to submit copy to an outside firm any time a change is made to the app. Make sure that in-house staff can handle any necessary additions or changes themselves. It’s ideal if internal staff can add pages and functionality as needed to make an app more relevant.

A static app will become stale quickly, likely frustrating users. By including the latest information, the app will continue to be valued—and used—by patients.

4. Easy to navigate

Think about the apps you use every day. What characteristics do they share? They’re likely relevant to your business or your interests, and they definitely are easy to navigate. Functionality and navigation are top challenges for any app, which is why less is more in successful app development. Elements of the user interface should be optimized to make the user experience simple and straightforward.

At the same time, avoid splash screens, advertisements or anything else that gets between patients and the information they need. Avoid up-front registration, too, unless that’s required because the app will be used to exchange PHI.

5. Don’t create without a purpose

No provider should be developing an app without a specific purpose in mind. Unless an app is intended for a specialty practice, a one-size-fits-all app ultimately fits no one.

An app needs a “mobile hook” that makes it indispensable to users by performing a frequently needed or uniquely mobile function. So how can patients use apps to make their life easier? Appointment reminders and in-app scheduling can ease the time pressures on front-line staff. Direct communication between patient and provider can cut through the clutter and barriers that normally separate the two, increasing patient satisfaction.

Select a vendor with not only specific expertise in healthcare, but also in making a strong business case with ROI metrics. Metrics are critical as a successful pilot project moves into a more robust implementation phase that touches multiple departments.

Conclusion

The use of technology to develop mobile apps certainly doesn’t fit any traditional role in healthcare. But tech-savvy patients increasingly rely on mobile apps for work, leisure, and everything in between. A UK study shows the average smartphone user performs 221 tasks per day on their phones.

Hospitals reach just 2% of their patient populations through mobile apps, indicating the industry has a long way to go. Apps developed by digital health IT firms are gaining traction in the market by allowing providers to shift the technology burden while maintaining control of content and branding elements of their apps.

 
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