Apps and apparitions

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This month's cover story hails mobile apps as the future of patient education and disease management, which is a somewhat courageous statement. Once you break through the buzz surrounding these apps—not to mention the perceived necessity of every company, brand and service to develop one—they are not exactly making much of an impact. At least not yet.
According to Manhattan Research's CyberCitizen Health v10.0 study, only one in every 100 consumers aged 55 and over use healthcare mobile apps, while just 7% of caregivers use them. Meanwhile, consumers spend more time browsing mobile sites than they do using apps. So, if the pool of users is so insignificant right now, what is it about apps that make them attractive enough for Merck and others to back them wholeheartedly?
Well, for starters the prevalence of smart phones has been, and still is, rising fast. There are almost 100 million iPhones on the market alone—7 million of them belong to diabetics, by the way. And as Merck's global commercial leader for mobile, Len Tacconi, points out: “People never leave home without them.” (Almost never, Len. Ahem.)
Plus, 96% of Generation-Yers have already joined a social network, according to Todd Siesky of Roche Diabetes Care, addressing delegates at last month's BDI Mobile Healthcare Communications event in New York. “We refer to them as tomorrow's customers,” he says.
Apps live and die by the value and experience they offer users. Or as VML's Joe Grigsby told the same BDI delegates: “It's about control. We're addicted to these devices because they give us control over our lives.”
Aside from the fact there are so many of them, one of the hurdles to apps “catching on” is that you'll never really understand the value of a good app until you've experienced it; until you've really lived it.
I regularly use a running app for my iPhone. All I have to do is hit “start” at the beginning of my run and “stop” at the finish. At which point the app not only gives me time, distance, pace, splits and calories burned, it also draws a Google map of my route and a graph of elevation vs. speed vs. pace. (Of course, it also sends the results and the map to Facebook and Twitter if I want it to.) Furthermore it generates analysis charts based on any number of variables, such as distances per month, personal bests and even the most common time of the day that I run. Oh, and while I'm running it talks to me at intervals, telling me the time and distance and “coaching” me on how much I need to speed up to hit my target pace. All I do is hit “start” and “stop.”
There are certainly parallels between my running app and disease management apps, particularly in areas like diabetes, where there are complex sets of records to keep and interpret.
“We heard from our customers,” says Merck's Tacconi, “that managing type 2 diabetes is like managing a hundred things at a time.” Who wants to do that? “If you're going to help them, help them,” he says. “Don't force them to go to five or six different places.” Build it really well and they will come.

Turning the page
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