Nearly 60 percent of US smartphone owners use phones to manage health

By Heather Mack
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US consumers are getting more comfortable using mobile devices to manage their health, a new study finds. Even in the face of privacy concerns, Americans are increasingly sharing medical information, sending photos to their doctors, using fitness or activity trackers, and using AI to become active players in their healthcare.

Ketchum conducted an online survey of 2,000 smartphone-owning Americans earlier this year, and found close to 58 percent of this group uses their phone to communicate with a medical professional. Almost half of respondents have a fitness, health or medication-tracking app, and 83 percent of people who use fitness or workout apps do so at least once per week. Of course, not everyone loves health apps – about a quarter of survey respondents said health and fitness tracking apps have made them feel bad, with 21 percent ending use of the apps.

Lisa Sullivan, executive vice president and North American technology practice leader for Ketchum said the study points to a shift in people’s attitudes and readiness to use technology to manage their health.

“With US smartphone adoption at 68 percent, now is the time for businesses that have a stake in the healthcare industry to push to develop approachable, intuitive mobile tech offerings that help the ever-increasing mobile user population improve something as personal and important as their health,” Sullivan said in a statement.

Ketchum also evaluated the emerging use of AI for health and wellness, specifically zeroing in on iPhone’s Siri to ask about a prescription, or getting the opinion of a virtual assistant on a medical condition via photo. They found two out of five Americans are comfortable using AI, but not just any AI – they may know and trust Siri as a search tool or a tracker, but they still aren’t too keen about using AI as a medical adviser (only 18 percent said they would) and only nine percent would consider a therapist that isn’t really human after all.

But, this is an opportunity to educate. Over half of respondents, across all ages, feel they have a lot to learn about digital health and its benefits. To gauge how to approach users on education, the survey identified five kinds of digital health users, categorizing them by descending degrees of their relative embrace or aversion to digital health and assigning them alliterative nicknames.

First are there are the “discerning digitals,” who are super engaged users who love being constantly connected and are advocates of digital health, but also like to put the brakes on their availability and still prefer face-face contact with medical professionals. Next are the so-called “swayable seekers,” who want to expand their smartphone utilities and start managing their health through the available digital heath technology.

Then there are the  “health tech hesitators,” who openly admit they don’t manage their health very well (and aren’t happy about it), but they also aren’t so into the idea of sharing information online. There’s the “app-athetic agnostics” who love mobile technology, but aren’t using it for their health, and they don’t anticipate changing. Still, they beat out the traditionalist “low-tech lifers,” who remain steadfast to their beliefs that digital health can’t help them – or anyone – ever. 

Researchers aren't too daunted by this group. As Valerie Delva, health strategy director for Ketchum North America stated, "though current attitudes toward using mobile technologies for health at the individual level are quite complex, the insights here also speak to broader trends in the health ecosystem and the potential for these technologies to help improve health outcomes."