Missed Connection: Why Patients Rarely Use Hospital Apps

By Valerie Lauer
Thursday, December 1, 2016

Just 66 percent of the nation’s largest hospitals have mobile apps for patients to use, and of those that furnish apps, only 2 percent of their patient populations utilize them, according to recent research by consulting firm Accenture. That’s a costly gap that experts say hospitals can close.

From reducing patient readmissions to improving overall well-being, the potential of healthcare apps is just beginning to be understood. What is far clearer is that patients want easy, mobile access to health information. The Pew Internet Project reports, for example, that 72 percent of people who use the internet have searched online for health information, and over half of smartphone users have used their phones to do so. Moreover, apps appear to be altering care among patients who use them.

“Mobile apps for smartphones are changing the way doctors and their patients approach medicine and health issues,” Vincent DeRobertis, Senior Vice President of Global Healthcare at data collection company Research Now, said in a news release about a survey the company conducted suggesting providers and patients value health apps. “Patients are gathering data about their condition or treatment, ultimately improving their health or perhaps reducing visits to a physician. Apps are improving healthcare professionals’ knowledge of their patients, while patients feel a lift in their quality of life. Obviously, there is a huge opportunity for the use of these apps.”

Yet, the Accenture survey of mobile app use suggests that, on the whole, the healthcare industry has failed to leverage this technology effectively.

A Snapshot

By examining the apps offered by the nation’s 100 largest hospitals and how they were being used, Accenture hoped to get a true sense both of the availability of such apps and whether or not the apps were meeting the needs of the populations those hospitals served.

“We are moving into a world where everything analog has the potential to become digital. That ultimately changes people’s expectations of what they can get from experiences. ... Providers lag behind other industries in their ability to use mobile as an engagement channel. However, we’re seeing there is high consumer demand. An opportunity exists to improve the experience through design, collaboration and continuous improvement.”
— Brian Kalis, Managing Director of Digital Health, Accenture

Researchers analyzed mobile health apps offered by the hospitals as well as apps from vendors and evaluated consumer usage and attitudes toward mobile health tools by assessing data from consumer surveys. Patient population statistics and CDC hospital discharge surveys helped complete the picture.

“We found that while providers are making efforts to meet consumer needs, the response to date has been inadequate,” says Brian Kalis, Managing Director of Digital Health at Accenture. “More than half of health consumers would like to use their smartphones more to interact with providers, but they’re displeased with the current lack of mobile service.”

In a time when patient experience plays such an integral part in hospitals’ financial success, failing to harness the potential of mobile apps is risky. Accenture found that 7 percent of patients leave healthcare providers due to poor customer service, including disappointment with mobile apps. That exodus could cost a hospital more than $100 million in annual revenue. The solution? Doing more to meet patients’ rising expectations of what healthcare apps can do and how they do it.

Catering to Patient Needs

“[I]t all comes down to simplicity and convenience,” Kalis says. “People’s expectations across all industries are elevating. When you can request a taxi by pressing a button ... or have a package delivered to your door nearly on demand, the ability to at least schedule an appointment [through an app] becomes kind of a table stake expectation.”

Indeed, the ability to make, change or cancel appointments via mobile app is one of the features Kalis and his colleagues found to be in high demand. Other top requested features include access to medical records and the option to request prescription refills electronically. Of the 100 hospitals surveyed in the Accenture study, only 11 had apps with one of these three features. One such hospital, Cleveland Clinic, has focused on app development for several years.

“We have apps in development that will support access by allowing patients to quickly identify local Cleveland Clinic resources, including on-demand scheduling,” Cynthia Deyling, MD, Chief Quality Officer at Cleveland Clinic, said in an interview with Healthcare IT News. “Other tools, including apps that promote patient wellness and chronic disease management, are also in use.”

Checklist for Success

Kalis says that to live up to patients’ expectations of digital interaction and functionality, healthcare facilities should consider these key study takeaways:

  • Design for consumers. Build apps with the user in mind. That means interacting with intended audiences to gauge their needs before and during each step of development.
  • Collaborate to deliver. Not all hospitals have the resources to build their own mobile apps, nor should all try to do so. Collaborating with EHR vendors, third-party developers and digital disruptors can be invaluable in these scenarios. Digital app curators at iPrescribeApps, for example, are currently beta testing a service that allows physicians to recommend trusted health apps just as they would lifestyle changes or over-the-counter medications, all with a user-friendly interface for both physician and patient.
  • Improve interactively. Find out what works and what does not. Be prepared to change.

“Creating better experiences is not a one-time thing,” Kalis says. “It comes down to continually seeking to understand what the needs of your population are and how you can continually improve the experiences you’re providing to meet those needs.”