We are at the dawn of a mobile, personal health revolution. Beginning soon, technology will play a much bigger role in all aspects of healthcare and will have a heightened role and urgency for marketers selling drugs, health brands, devices, therapies and services. Apps will become a critical marketing and promotion tool.
Apps hold out the possibility of fulfilling marketers persistent fantasy -- that consumers will record daily, personal activity and that this data will fuel on-going relationship marketing programs. This belief is especially strong among pharmaceutical marketers who dream of patient diaries and yearn for patient data as a door opener for the patient-doctor conversation, widely acknowledged to be the single biggest hurdle in the DTC arena. Apps also offer technology for overcoming the two biggest consumer adherence and conversion stumbling blocks – what’s in it for me (WiiFM) and do it for me (DiFM).
Depending on how you count, there are as many as 97,000 existing mHealth apps ranging from broad-based health and wellness tools to single brand, single action apps. Three out of four are paid apps. Forty-three percent are aimed at healthcare professionals. The majority of those are either dosing calculators or reference materials.
In real life, less than 1000 of these apps have had more than 500 downloads. And nobody knows much about actual usage. On average, Americans have 41 apps on their smartphones and actually use eight or 1 out of every 5 apps they download.
Most, apps haven’t caught on because they don’t provide consumers with enough value to prompt use. But soon they will.
New technologies like Fitbit, Nike+ and Up by Jawbone passively collect data using wearable devices that can be downloaded and distributed. These tools play to a general consumer desire to have technology do things for them by running in the background. Walgreens app with its scan-to-refill feature is gaining traction because it saves time and is fun to use. Walgreens, who have 10 apps in-market, reports that app users generate 6 million visits a week to its online sites and four times the sales of store-only customers.
There are dozens of apps for chronic disease states like diabetes, asthma and depression that record incidents and data points or track adherence to dosing. The Pew Internet Project reported in January 2013, that 69 percent of Americans track some kind of health data and one in five of them use some form of technology. All apps live or die by providing either utility or diversion.
In the not too distant future an array of sensor-like apps to monitor vital signs and measure specific symptoms will hit the market. The uChek Urine Analyzer app, in development in India by Biosense Technologies helps patients read up to 10 biomarkers using reagent strips and the smartphone’s camera. You dip the strip in urine, photograph it and in moments, by comparing the image with a stored database, get a read-out of glucose, urobilinogen, pH, ketone, blood protein, bilirubin, nitrite, leukocyte and specific gravity. It’s a medical lab in your pocket.
Similarly Brian Cunningham, and his team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed an iPhone-based biosensor that uses the phone’s camera as a spectrometer to detect viruses, bacteria, toxins, proteins and even allergens in food. The app is as accurate as a $50,000 laboratory spectrophotometer.
The government not consumers will govern the speed of branded app development. Like social media, the FDA will waffle, stifle and hide for a while trying to decide if apps are medical devices or something else. And like social media, consumers will quickly adopt useful apps and the FDA, and pharmaceutical firms chronically fearful of the FDA, will play catch up.
In the next phase of development apps will interact with each other and marketers will optimize apps by monitoring intra-app usage. Amazon and Adotomi have already introduced mobile app tracking systems to help developers and marketers understand exactly how consumers use apps by tracking in-app actions, keystrokes and content pathways. This will streamline apps, give brands and designers a clear picture of the user experience and focus attention on the most engaging and useful functionalities.
In a couple of years, an app on your phone will pick up a signal, from your body’s vital signs monitor. Comparing it with a stored EMR or a real-time connection to your doctor’s database will instantly process the signal. The app will cue the doctor, access your insurance coverage and the formulary, ping a pharmacy, alert you about a developing issue and probably suggest a course of action.
Apps will give us 24/7 medical monitoring with the potential to better understand how people respond to conditions and the opportunity for heath care pros and brands to be in regular conversation with people about their particular heath issues. Apps marry data flows and body mechanics to Marcus Welby, MD.
But this techno-magic won’t happen automatically. Marketers need to do much more ethnographic research about patients, better understand the practical behaviors and day-to-day attitudes of people suffering from diseases and think carefully about the interplay of 3 or more devices with each other and the real world in order to develop apps that real people will use.
Brands have to think harder about how to message and persuade further downstream by developing better, more granular insights into patient journeys and patient mindsets. The conversation has to be re-oriented to where people are physically, in time and in treatment. And brands have to make their case one-to-one at each stage. We are on the cusp of great potential breakthroughs but we are down a quart in our understanding of people as patients and how they think about, act, feel and care for their bodies