Looking to develop a patient app? Think long and hard about its design, rollout from the start

Lessons learned from the launch of South Shore Health System's OB-GYN care patient app.
By Dave Muoio
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Pamphlets and binders are old hat when it comes to take-home patient education. Instead, a growing number of providers are referring their patients to mobile apps and other digital resources.

It’s an approach that South Shore Health System’s Luke Poppish says comes with a number of major benefits for a health system — an app platform is easy to update with new information, is more convenient to use for most patients and ensures consistent messaging across offices and departments. 

Thinking back to the rollout his system’s first such app platform for patients receiving prenatal, inpatient and postpartum OB-GYN care, he stressed the need for providers to do their homework when dipping their toes into the realm of patient app development.

“Everything’s on phones now, so I think everybody thinks ‘Oh, if we have this problem, we’ll just do an app and that’ll solve it,’” Poppish said. “The app helps, but the content we created, how we rolled it out, all the stuff we focused on and what I’m going to talk about, really helps to guide [this process].”

Among the most important choices a provider will have to make when going down this road is also one of their first: should the app be developed in house, or is a system better off hiring a design firm to do the heavy lifting? South Shore found success with the latter option, Poppish said, but systems should consider the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches when deciding what will work best for its organization.

“So the pro side, [outsourcing development] helps move things along much quicker than it would be if you did internal development,” he explained. “On the con side, because it’s external you’re also at the mercy of external forces when it comes to who you work with from that partner. … You develop relationships with these partners over long periods of time and they continue to provide us support, but I’ve lost a lot of my contacts through attrition, and that makes it more challenging to know who to reach to make any changes.”

In South Shore’s case, its partner was able to turn content provided by the system into a beta version of the app “within a matter of weeks,” Poppish said.

“When I learned more about app creation and app building, I realized that if we had taken this on our own, we’d probably still be talking about concepts,” he continued. “It’s not extremely difficult, but it’s also a specialized area, app development, and then you have to worry about if you have internal resources, and they also have a lot of other time demands.”

Poppish also noted some roadblocks in the rollout of the app itself across South Shores’ affiliated OB-GYN offices. Many of these hurdles came from the difficulty of instilling a uniform patient experience across disparate locations, and a paper-to-programs culture change that was somewhat jarring for longtime providers.

“One of the things we learned was the people who were hardest to change were a lot of our intake nurses and care teams at the OB sites,” he said. “We had patients who when they were exposed to the app gave us tremendous feedback and really liked it, but then it was this whole thing about how do we stop giving out all the information we used to and drive people to an electronic solution — which was really uncomfortable for a lot of people who had been intake nurses or obstetricians for 30 years.” 

Poppish will be discussing these challenges and other practical takeaways from South Shore’s experience at HIMSS20 in a session titled “Mobile App Drives HCAHPS Growth Through Patient Care Mapping.“ It is scheduled for Wednesday, March 11 from 10-11a.m. in room W304A.