Usability, Style & Cost: Making mHealth Really Work

By Brian Dolan
02:01 pm

Karen KatzBy Karen Katz, Esq. Director of Business Development, Health, Medtech and e-Health at Mintz Levin

"So to stop the computer, I click on "start?" This question from my retired, 76 year old Dad as we go through how to shut down Microsoft Windows for the hundredth time. Yup. It's counter-intuitive.

With the aging baby boomer population, 259 million cell phone users in the United States and the buzz focused the Obama's Stimulus Package, the market is likely to see an up-tick in mobile-health applications as a means to make access to healthcare easier and cut costs. The questions: Will companies with these applications get funded? Are these solutions in search of problems? Will saving time ultimately lead to saving money - or is it more complicated than that? What is the value?

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Clinical Pull

To date, savvy investors in the healthcare have often relied on clinicians for feedback before deciding on an investment. What is the workflow of a clinician? Does the technology "fit" with everything else the doctor has to do? Even if it saves time, will the treatment professional use it and what are the reimbursement incentives. While ease of use information was sometimes anecdotal, gathering it and thinking about how technology might interface with workflow was a step in the right direction. Over time, however, more sophisticated approaches have developed including consulting with teams of clinicians, designers or embarking on lobbying efforts.

One healthcare system that is ensuring mobile health applications have a clinical pull is Partners HealthCare System. Partners' believes that health care will be remade when it moves beyond the hospital and clinic and into day-to-day life. As a result, Partners' Center for Connected Health works toward putting information technology -- computers, cell phones, the Internet and an array of other emerging tools -- at the service of this remaking, enabling people to manage chronic conditions, maintain health and wellness, and age independently. Working in concert with the Center, and other groups like it, on research studies, focus groups, clinical trials and other healthcare educational and advisory services to advance the field, could provide the healthcare entrepreneur and investor alike with superior knowledge as to the usability, value, increased patient engagement, workflow redesign, improved health outcomes and improved patient-provider communications as effectiveness of a new m-health application.

Increasingly, design firms are being asked to build "use scenarios" to help determine whether an envisioned technology is actually realistic for patient and doctor alike. "A lot of companies are looking into what they can do with the basic 160 character text message, such as reminders or staying in touch," says Arna Ionescu, co-leader of the Connected Health domain within design and innovation firm IDEO. But repetition of a text message, after awhile, fails to be effective.

On the flip side are more rich applications that incorporate specialized interfaces, video and photos. "But you have to strike the right balance," says Ionescu. An application or service that requires constant reporting, picture taking and feedback becomes far too top of mind and ultimately will be rejected by the user.

It's important to tackle any problem holistically. For instance, in work IDEO did for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy the team used mobile, web and analog channels to help women consistently take their birth control pills and to ensure women have a support structure if things don't work out quite right, e.g. dealing with pill side effects. "It's important to work in a variety of hooks to hold people's attention."

Does This Device Make Me Look Old?

Let's face it - we all have a desire to maintain independence, mobility and pursue life with as much "gusto" as possible. Any device that helps current and future retirees age gracefully, melds easily into day to day activities and has some style is likely to find a market. A 63 year old bikini clad Helen Mirren ( is a far cry from the bent over granny moaning "Help me! I've fallen and I can't get up" we used to see on late night TV. An aging Mirren will more likely wear a necklace or an unobtrusive wristwatch that monitors some of her vital signs and whereabouts. The increased ubiquitous nature of the cell phone and cell phone technology has resulted in new and interesting options that can play more and more of a role in assisting seniors, provided they are simple and intuitive.

Wireless sensors in the home are increasingly popular as well. Rather than constantly wearing a device, a senior might have a sensor under the bed or in the bathroom monitoring where she's been during the day and reporting back to her adult child or a central monitoring system. This passive monitoring encourages independence and a feeling of competence that wearable, clunky boxes with big buttons fail to do.

Similarly, the Jitterbug phone doesn't scream "I'm old." The phones were created for people who prefer a simple, easy to use cell phone. Some of the buttons are slightly different (Yes and No, for instance), but the look and feel of the phones is much like anything one might by from Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.

Lifecomm, a new, wireless health services company currently being incubated by Qualcomm, is focusing on a significant portion of its initial development efforts on the senior market. One of its initial product/service offerings is a "smart mobile PERS" (Personal Emergency Response System) system, which through use of wireless technology offers extended coverage (both in and out of the home - verses in the home only coverage available with most existing products) for seniors, and adds other technology-enabled features such as automated fall detection and geo-locating capabilities that leapfrog the vast majority of current offerings. The device itself is "smart and stylish"; it's streamlined, contemporary look and feel was warmly received by seniors in recent focus group testing.


Expect to see proliferation of peripheral devices that will connect patients and providers. The overall objective is improving outcomes and experiences along with lowering costs. That wireless devices are scalable and, if designed right, clinically integrated, stylish and easy to use will go a long way toward getting new concepts funded and adopted in the market.

Karen Katz, Esq, is Director of Business Development, Health at Mintz Levin ( and Co-Chair of The Funding Expedition with The Capital Network ( She may be reached at


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