January 17, 2013 – Smartphones and tablets have fundamentally changed how we communicate, get information and conduct commerce. That popularity of apps has carried over into the health care industry as consumers search for easy-to-use mobile apps for health information and caregiver connectivity, and providers scramble to deliver consumer-friendly mobile services to sign on new patients and solidify relationships with existing ones.

Case in point: Juniper Research predicts that consumers worldwide will download 44 million health apps in 2012, with continued growth resulting in 142 million downloads in 2016.

However, the vast majority of those downloads will be for health software that tracks a diet, logs cardio workouts or is geared toward reducing stress. Those are all valuable tools, but many health care organizations are aiming their efforts at offering mobile applications that connect consumers (i.e., patients) with the nuts and bolts of health care delivery: appointment scheduling, test results, interaction with chronic disease professionals and online bill pay options.

Consumer interest in mobile health applications indicates a burgeoning demand for health connectivity, but mobile connections between caregivers and patients is evolving much slower than organizations that have invested in that connectivity expected.

Dean Clinic, for example, has been active in the mobile market for more than two years, but hasn't found it to yet be a game changer. The clinic, with 64 locations throughout Wisconsin, since 2005 has offered a patient portal with a personal health record. It currently has 115,000 patients actively using the PHR, meaning they have accessed it during the last 12 rolling months.

Since September 2010, the clinic has made the MyChart portal from Epic Systems Corp. available via an iPhone mobile app developed by the vendor. Dean Clinic was the first Epic client to go live with the mobile app and now has about 6,000 users, says DJ Curran, telehealth program manager. That's around 0.5 percent of the total patient population; the clinic had expected about 10 percent of patients would be using it by now.

An Android app was introduced in the fall of 2011, but didn't result in a big bump in usage, Curran says. On the plus side, Dean Clinic didn't suffer financially; there's virtually no overhead for the clinic except supporting the app on the patient portal, which the clinic hosts.

The low adoption is partly explained by the mobile app's current limitations: The most popular features on the patient portal are self-service functions-scheduling, medication refills, bill payment and access to a medical library that explains test results. But these features are not yet available via the mobile software, though they will be in coming months. Another function that will be added is enabling patients to take and transmit a photo or video, which should increase interest in the mobile offering, Curran says.

Right now, patients can access a basic health summary (problem list, medications, allergies and immunizations), test results, send secure messages to clinicians, and view family records with authorization.

"We were relatively early when we launched the app; it was more of a novelty and now it's becoming more of an expectation," Curran adds. "We had the exact same cycle of adoption on our website."

This story originally appeared at Health Data Management.

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