Health consumer and medical apps: Common threads for success

Health, fitness and medical apps are flooding the market at breakneck speed. There are now more than 40,000 of them. There are many obvious differences between those directed to consumers and apps developed as tools for healthcare providers, targeted at disease-specific conditions and patients. Business models, costs of development, regulatory requirements and audiences differ significantly between the two. However, there are fundamental and important similarities between them that will ultimately determine their success.

1. All health and medical apps should be seen as components of a digital health ecosystem.  A single app or two will not address the needs of any consumer, patient, caregiver or healthcare provider. Multiple apps addressing different aspects of one person's or group's needs might work in concert with each other.  For example, exercise apps might be grouped with nutrition apps. This is especially true with apps aimed at the biggest users of health resources  --  those with chronic disease. Multiple diagnostic, therapeutic or educational apps will be prescribed by clinical decision support tools overseen by information officers. Apps will interact with electronic health records, patient portals and various hardware devices.

2. The adoption and success of both consumer and medical apps will depend upon demonstration of reliability and efficacy. Apps are no different than any other consumer or health product. The first question a potential user, purchaser or prescriber (yes, apps will be prescribed to patients) is, "Does the app do what is says it does?" The app must, in essence, be safe and reliable. Whether it is an exercise app that promotes weight loss or an app assisting a surgeon in evaluating a post-operative wound site, user expectations should be met.  While the potential health consequences of misrepresentation or malfunction of one are far more serious than the other (addressed with the former by the FDA and FTC), the expectations for success by developers and users are the same.

3. Successful health, fitness and medical apps all require sustainable business models. Business models will be significantly different between consumer apps and medical apps. Consumer app business models likely fall into one of three ways apps make money (advertising and sponsorships, paid products and services, or e-commerce). Medical apps have more potential business models depending upon the type of purchaser and user audiences, healthcare stakeholder interaction, data sales to secondary markets, products and services, and technology interface. What is clear is that a great technology without a well-thought-out business model will not succeed.

4. Behavior change must be a goal of all these apps. Apps represent an out-of-the-box technological solution to wellness, preventive medicine and healthcare delivery. Though the goals of success are built around preexisting models of fitness, diagnosis and treatment, the success of apps is most tied to persistent connection to a digital technology. This might interject one more step in the process (or possibly not, in the case of some remote monitoring. for example). It is well recognized that the behavioral aspects of apps are important in maintaining interest. The vast majority of apps are downloaded and rarely used thereafter. Non-adherence to apps aimed at maintaining or improving health has potential for greater adverse consequences than that to recreational apps.

Ironically, many health apps are aimed at increasing medication and treatment adherence. Therefore, behavioral mechanisms aimed at keeping the user engaged are paramount to the app's success. This must be realized by developers before they even think of measuring clinical efficacy. Behavioral design of apps will need to vary depending upon the intended user's cultural background, age, and physical and mental abilities.

5. Maximizing the power of app-generated data is a critical. Data that is derived from a wellness or medical app not only needs to be analyzed and filtered, but placed into a goal-oriented context to be communicated to the user. It might be a message to the consumer to change fitness level regimens or type of diet. It might be a series of recommendations as part of a clinical decision support tool that is translated to a care plan by a chief knowledge officer. It might be pooled data from many patients or consumers in a "crowdsourced" manner that brings a clear epidemiological picture of a poorly understood problem or the discovery of a new clinical phenomenon. De-identified app generated data might have commercial value to third parties.

Consumer apps have driven the lucrative and rapidly growing health and medical app industry. Reasons for this include scalable business models without concerns about FDA regulation; younger, more "connected" patients having more interest in wellness and fitness; and an easier, analogous cultural shift from other pre-existing apps. Apps aimed at medical education, institutional operations and patient monitoring followed. The biggest impact yet to be felt will be a result of diagnostic and therapeutic apps as well of knowledge gained by analysis of data derived from all of these apps.

David Lee Scher is a former cardiac electrophysiologist and is an independent consultant and owner/director at DLS Healthcare Consulting, LLC, concentrating in advising digital health companies and their partnering institutions, providers and businesses. A pioneer adopter of remote cardiac monitoring, he lectures worldwide promoting the benefits of digital health technologies. Twitter: @dlschermd, He also blogs at He was cited as one of the 10 cardiologists to follow on Twitter and one of the top 10 blogs on healthcare technology.

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