Top 3 considerations when designing apps for the mobile clinician

Mobile devices, and the healthcare apps that run on them, have the potential to greatly enhance patient-provider relationships by allowing physicians to be more engaged and efficient during the patient encounter.

The use of mobile devices in the healthcare setting is prevalent. In fact, physician smartphone adoption outpaces the general U.S. adult population’s adoption of smartphones. What’s more, a study from Manhattan Research last year found that almost 72 percent of physicians now own a smartphone. And by the end of 2012, physician smartphone adoption is expected to reach 81 percent to 85 percent as a result of device improvements, increased data speeds and decreased costs.

With this explosion in device usage and adoption come hundreds of new mobile applications designed specifically for the medical practitioner. In order to provide the best possible experience for medical professionals as they embrace mobile technology, we need to consider the following.

Consideration #1: Web, native, or hybrid app?
The web vs. native mobile app argument has been forging for years. While it’s often more expensive and time consuming to develop native apps, the benefits they provide just might outweigh the time and cost factors, especially in the healthcare setting.

Native apps are arguably more reliable and faster and have a richer set of features than their web app brethren thanks in part to their ability to take advantage of hardware-related features. Moreover, research has shown that native apps have higher adoption rates, greater ongoing usage and, in general, provide a more engaging experience for the end user. Furthermore, the native app approach in healthcare is supported by the fact that the medical community has somewhat standardized on iOS as a result of user adoption patterns.

According to research published last year, approximately 28 percent of physicians had planned to purchase an iPad in 2011, and for physicians who do not yet own a mobile device, 66 percent are likely to select an Apple product. With the release of the latest version of the iPad and its resolution and 4G improvements, this adoption pattern will surely continue to climb (especially across medical specialties, such as diagnostic imaging, where a superior screen resolution is critical to workflow and usability).

On the other hand, developing and deploying web apps is more cost-effective and offers universal, cross-platform usability. However, this universal approach comes at the cost of user experience and access to well-established distribution channels. Given the benefits of both approaches, a hybrid approach may be the perfect answer to balance cost, distribution, usability and ongoing maintenance.

Despite the strong argument for developing native or hybrid apps in the context of healthcare, it will up to you or the designer of your healthcare apps to choose the most appropriate path to support clean user interfaces (UI) and an optimal end user experience.

Consideration #2: Physicians are consumers, too.
When developing apps for the mobile clinician, it’s important to remember that physicians are consumers, too. These tech-savvy consumers have a baseline expectation for how a mobile app should function – whether it is a game or point-of-care documentation solution. Users of mobile devices have come to expect user-friendly apps that perform well and are germane to the task at hand. Given these factors, it is recommended that healthcare apps closely follow existing UI guidelines so there is consistency as physicians drift between their consumer and professional lives.

In an effort to create apps that your clinicians actually want to use, my recommendation is to engage a select group of your trusted clinicians – three to five – early on and often. In other words, don’t go creating these apps in some darkly-lit room and expect your end users to welcome them open-armed. By engaging a select group of early adopters, you get direct feedback in real-time from the users themselves and help eradicate unnecessary iterations once the app is live. More so, you’re setting up a select group of champions to serve as ambassadors for wider adoption once the app is launched.

Consideration #3: Better user experience enablement.
Mobile apps undoubtedly help clinicians research, access, create and share clinical information faster than ever. In the beginning brainstorming stage of design, think about how your app fits into clinical workflow and the opportunities that exist for providing a better user experience. Ask yourself:

  • What will medical professionals do with our app and how will they interact with it?
  • What workflow challenges will our app help overcome? Is it trying to do too much? Or not enough?
  • What capabilities do our users need and how can we best deliver and ensure a positive experience?

Answering questions like these will aid in the design of your app. For example, if you’ve designed a mobile point-of-care documentation solution, you might want to explore alternate data input capabilities, such as cloud-based medical speech recognition, that will help your end users document on-the-go in a more efficient manner. Not only is speaking to a mobile device up to five times faster than typing, but it affords the user the opportunity to interact with your app (and their patients) hands-free.

As mentioned in consideration #2, you definitely want to mirror the types of technology and streamlined interactions that are available to the wide-based consumer market. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in mind that just because an app is useful for the consumer user doesn’t mean it’s going to resonate within the confines of the medical community. For example, while you and I may use Siri as our daily digital assistant, the reality is this same technology doesn’t resonate with the everyday practitioner because of distinct differences in ontology and basic support needs as it relates to their specific job duties.

At the end of the day, these three app design considerations and paying special attention to the ergonomics and functional implementation of workflows that are unobtrusive to users will lead to happier clinicians and in turn happier patients. What other considerations are crucial when it comes to designing apps that clinicians can’t help but want to use?

Jonathon Dreyer is senior manager for mobile solutions marketing at Nuance Healthcare.

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