The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employs a few key principles to engage its population with mobile health tools, according to Dr. Neil Evans, co-director of the VA connected health department who spokes at the HIMSS Connected Health Conference this week.
One of the principles the VA focuses on, though Evans admits it is a very basic one, is knowing its customer.
"Our customer is the veteran, America’s veteran, and in particular veterans who are receiving healthcare from us... and so understanding this segment of veterans that we care for is particularly important," Evans said. "And also understand those who care for veterans — caregivers, family members, loved ones of veterans. As part of this we spent a lot of time trying to understand what brings value to the veteran? What is it we should be focusing on?"
In order to find the answers to these questions, Evans said his team reviewed transcripts from a large veteran survey done a few years ago to learn more about what matters most to veterans. They found that there were some key needs that veterans had in common. Veterans said they want to take care of simple health related tasks in one place without waiting on hold for 45 minutes. They said they want it to be easy to communicate with their health care team, see their health care records, share health data with their health care team, and access health expertise when and where they need it.
Other key principles that Evans discussed included implementation, which he said involves marketing as well as communicating with the healthcare team to help them understand the value of the digital tools, and prioritizing the projects that veterans are most interested in because of the VA's time constraints.
Based on these principles, the VA has developed and released 30 digital health apps in the organization's online app store. One of the earliest apps, PTSD Coach, which was first released in April 2011, has seen more than 200,000 downloads across 93 countries as of October. In March, according to a ClinicalTrials.gov posting, this app is also being used for a clinical trial to test whether the app is more effective with clinician support.
Just three other VA-developed apps had over 20,000 downloads, as of October. CBT-i Coach, released in June 2013 for people who have insomnia or have symptoms of insomnia, has seen 57,000 downloads. PE Coach, released in March 2012 and designed to be used during psychotherapy provided by a behavioral health professional, has seen 36,000 downloads. And Mindfulness Coach, released in January 2014, has seen 21,000 downloads.
Evans also unveiled a few new offerings that the VA has only made available through a limited release, though the VA is expecting a national release later this year.
These apps include Annie for Veterans, a text messaging app that veterans can use in conjunction with a treatment plan given to them by their provider; Mission Health, a fitness game app that helps users improve their fitness through competitions with other veterans from their branch of the armed services; and Wellness Check, an app that allows users to submit daily health and wellness checkins so that the user and family members can track the uer's health over time.