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Navigating mHealth apps ahead of Stage 2 meaningful use

By Jennifer Bresnick

Ahead of the patient engagement requirements of Stage 2 meaningful use, physicians are seeking attractive, easy ways to get patients online and involved in their care.  Smartphone and tablet apps targeted for healthcare seem like the perfect answer, helping to connect patients with providers, coordinate care, and boost healthy behaviors and chronic disease management.

But app development is ultimately a business, and developers don’t always have a patient’s or a physician’s best interests at heart.  Providers need to know how to choose apps that will help grow their business and the trust between patient and physician, while at the same time being aware of what their patients are using to seek outside medical advice.

Business-to-consumer model: It’s a jungle out there

Providers are most wary of the business-to-consumer model, and they have good reason to be.  “Wellness” apps that promise everything from a cure for acne to a weight loss program based on energy drinks and cauliflower can lure in gullible patients surfing the iTunes store without any medical guidance whatsoever.  For developers, this is where the money is.  A surprising number of people are willing to pay 99 cents for a little game that promises the perfect body in 30 days, or claims to know the secret to combining over-the-counter herbal supplements to help users balance their energy flow.

While experts have been speaking out in favor of more mHealth regulation for some time now, and the FDA is planning to release its final guidance on which apps and products will fall under its jurisdiction soon, right now there’s very little standing between eager patients and opportunistic developers.  Physicians are generally eager to embrace the idea of smartphones to help patients with monitoring their blood sugar or counting calories, but fitness cheerleaders and sleep trackers don’t do much to help a physician with meaningful use, nor do they aid a provider’s daily operations.  Instead, they might just create extra data to sift through, overwhelming the clinician and wasting valuable consult time scrolling through useless statistics.

From B2B to B2B2C: Making meaningful use of mHealth

The real value for the physician, right now, lies in applications that are marketed directly to a provider, and then shared with patients after being appropriately integrated into the clinical workflow.  Appointment scheduling apps, secure messaging with advice nurses, patient portals available on the iPhone, and even EHR-connected remote devices have real clinical and business value to the modern medical practice.

Providers may end up shouldering the costs for such offerings, through licensure programs or “freemium” models that allow businesses to access basic services for free, and then require paid accounts for advanced capabilities or larger groups of users.  But if these opportunities for online interactions bring patients into the fold or help meet the 5% patient engagement requirement and maintain compliance with meaningful use, it might be worth it.

An increasing number of mobile applications are being subsidized by health insurance companies, too.  As accountable care and preventative medicine take the spotlight, insurers are looking to smartphones to help patients improve their daily healthy habits to eliminate the need for expensive chronic disease care down the line.

Providers shifting to risk-based reimbursement models also have a financial stake in preventing heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other long-term conditions from manifesting themselves as recurring hospital admissions or frequent trips to the emergency room.  Recommending apps endorsed or provided by health plans can help patients take advantage of wellness apps without falling into the traps set by unscrupulous developers cranking out useless programs.

As mHealth continues to infiltrate the lives of patients and providers alike, plucking the best offerings out of the wasteland of valueless applications will become an increasingly difficult task for providers.  Keeping the clinical value in mHealth by using reputable business development and patient engagement tools can help meet meaningful use criteria while providing customers with a service they can use for their own benefits, too.





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