Why use health plan apps? To search for specialists and understand drug coverage

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About 36% of consumers enrolled in commercial health plans have downloaded their health insurer's app, and only 13% of that group are actively using them to manage their health, according to a new survey.

When it comes to health-related apps, those that track physical activity, diet, and monitor health are the leaders in the space.

But what about mobile apps developed by health insurers? About 36% of consumers enrolled in commercial health plans have downloaded their health insurer's app, and only 13% of that group are actively using them to manage their health, according to a new survey.

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HealthSparq, which offers software services to about 65 health plans in the U.S. and an online health plan shopping tool for consumers, in March surveyed 813 adults with commercial health insurance.

It found that consumers younger than the age of 45 — about 50% — were most likely to use a health plan app, and that convenience and access to exclusive content were the top two reasons users downloaded the apps. These consumers indicated that they were searching for specialists (47%), seeing which medications are covered by their health plans (46%), and looking up physicians' contact information (43%).

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The overall low usage has to do with lack of need (in that not everyone needs healthcare services all the time) as well as lack of knowledge of the apps, said Burt Rosen, chief marketing officer at HealthSparq.

“The more people understand what these apps are capable of and what they have access to, the more they'll use them,” he said.

In 2014, HealthSparq conducted research on the frequency of communication between health insurers and consumers, and how that impacted trust, mobile tool usage, and customer satisfaction with their health plans. Those who knew about tools such as cost estimators, patient reviews, and physician locators reported greater satisfaction with their health insurer, said Rosen, and email was the most common means of educating consumers.

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The research also found that health insurers need to develop apps that cater to consumers' mobile needs, said Rosen. According to the survey, consumers tend to perform quicker tasks such as paying premiums (59%) and looking up covered services (45%) on their mobile devices, while common desktop activities include reviewing claims (51%), finding the cost of a procedure or service (46%), and researching other plans (46%).

Such features must be tied in with consumers' overall life and wellness choices, said Rosen.

“My Garmin smartwatch tracks my sleep every night,” added Rosen. “If my watch were able to alert me and say, ‘Hey, you've had way less deep sleep. Did you know the benefits from your health plan cover three visits from a sleep doctor in a year?' it's in the context of my life.”

But so far, he said he hasn't seen any health insurer that has done that.

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Respondents from the survey were also open to using automated bots that integrate voice-activated assistants such as Apple's Siri to get answers to inquiries about their health. Those most likely to use bot-based online tools in health plan apps were aged between 25 and 34 years old (58%), followed by those between 34 and 44 years old (43%), 18 and 24 years old (42%), and 45 to 54 years old (16%). Looking up covered services and finding doctors were the top reasons for using bots.

“The bot can provide value such as scheduling appointments for people, reporting back on benefits and deductibles,” said Rosen. “But it's still early [in healthcare].”

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