An mHeath mantra: Apps work when they focus on the user

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

When designing an app for consumers, healthcare providers need to remember one crucial point: Don't assume.

"Don't assume you know what's important to patients," says Ophelia Chiu, head of design strategy and innovation for New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. While working on the MyMSK app that was introduced this past February, she said, "we actually asked them what they needed and we designed that into the specifications."

Doctors have long gone with the assumption that they know what's best for their patients, and that's created a chasm in this era of consumer-facing healthcare and patient engagement. At a Monday afternoon panel session at the mHealth Summit, the developers of four patient-facing apps explained that success is generally measured by how many people use the app – and that only works if it gives them what they want.

[Learn more about the 2015 mHealth Summit.]

For example, said Chiu, don't just replicate a patient portal: provide information and functions that are unique to the app.  And don't restrict the app's functionality to the hospital visit.

"We understand that care starts well before they come to the hospital and doesn't end when they leave the institution," said Nitin Gujral, part of digital health program at Boston Children's Hospital that has been designing successful apps for the past six years.

The app can be personalized to the patient's needs. "Allow them to take full control of the information, personalize it and make it their own," advised Florencia Nochetto, of ICF International, which has been working with the National Library of Medicine to design apps for HIV and AIDS patients.

And make sure that whatever apps you design can be supported by the institution for years. Don't just throw a bunch of apps out there and expect them to live or die on their own.

"Take a realistic approach," said Corinna Lathan, of AnthroTronix, designers of the DANA Brain Vitals app that is used by military medics in the field to assess cognitive function in injured soldiers. She said the company had to consolidate some of its ideas to make sure it could maintain what it had already launched.

That approach has worked pretty well. The company's app is now being tested at Johns Hopkins for uses ranging from bedside assessment to treating eating disorders, and it's being tested at schools as part of a concussion protocol that determines when students are ready to return to the classroom. The company also hopes to launch an app next year that will measure fatigue, stress and depression in dementia caregivers.

Lathan had another piece of advice for providers looking to launch their own apps: Don't skimp on aesthetics. Some developers spend too much time perfecting an app's functionality and too little time on appearance and delivery.

"There has to be a reason why they download your app and not one of the 5,000 other apps out there," she said.

And that's why the patient should be at the center of every app, the panelists explained. The best clinical app in the world, designed to perfection to help people cope with a chronic disease or some other medical issue, will fade into obscurity if it focuses only on what the doctor wants the patient to know.

"When we're thinking about patient experiences," Chiu said, "we're thinking holistically."