WebMD seeks to unify health data

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WebMD seeks to unify health data
WebMD seeks to unify health data

Being able to track the number of steps taken or calories consumed is a valuable thing, but WebMD thinks mobile devices can do more than provide a data readout. Its just-released app, Healthy Target, seeks to do just that, by making its application a meeting place where data from activity monitors, wireless glucometers and scales gets paired up with friendly tidbits about how behaviors, like keeping sugar levels under control or getting enough sleep, contribute to a user's overall health profile.

WebMD's head of product management David Ziegler tells MM&M one of the benefits of the free app is that devices can be about so much more than the “quantified self” in terms of fitness, which is perfect for the target audience—the obese and type 2 diabetes patients—as well as “anyone who wants to live a healthier life. You want to eat better, sleep better or just feel better.”

The program includes three parts: selecting goals (such as losing weight), selecting habits (such as eating healthier, be more active and sleep better) and tracking daily progress. Each habit has three challenge levels—track a habit for a week, and users can choose a more challenging way to tackle it. If the level is too difficult, users can seek a gentler version.

What constitutes a challenge is variable. For example, users choosing “lose weight” are asked if they want to do this through activity or food, and the app does not ask users how much weight they want to lose. “We didn't want to provide an overwhelming list of things to do. We want them to ease into a healthier life and we felt that this was the best way of doing it,” Ziegler says.

The app's tracking aspect provides the context and encouragement to keep members motivated, and serves up a combination of WebMD lifestyle content, 200 habit-related facts written by the site's team, and feedback about the data that has been sent by devices or which has been manually entered by users whose devices do not auto-synch.

The app is about goal tracking as well as cheerleading—the team created 20 types of what Ziegler calls “juicy feedback” which means users get a congratulatory message like “good job” or “amazing” after tracking. The tool also provides some empathy when users don't hit their goal, asking for example, why they did not get enough sleep. Enter “stress” and the weekly Connect the Dots report gives users data from the week, as well as a weekly reading list that addresses ways to cope with stress.

The app also includes an ejection seat of sorts, and gives users the chance to start the week over if the number of obstacles is dragging them down. “Life gets in the way sometimes, so we had to be forgiving,” Zielger says.

The weekly recap also taps a little bit into competition, and shows “not just that you lost two pounds,” Ziegler says, but how many others in the community lost weight. This insight is also accompanied with additional facts, like people who lose one to two pounds a week are more likely to keep it off, or that that documented lack of sleep may be why a user could be forgetting things like where they left the car keys.

Data from the Pew Research Center's Internet Project shows that chronic disease patients and their caregivers are invested in tracking— 43% of participants in a 2012 survey said tracking their health has changed how they approach maintaining their health, and Pew noted that chronic disease patients and their caregivers are more inclined to track health indicators in a formal way than patients who do not have chronic conditions.

WebMD's own research indicates that 60% of its users want to improve their well-being and that 4.6 million of its monthy visitors have type 2 diabetes, while 7 million tend to look up healthy diet and nutrition information.

The app seeks to meet this need, while at the same time delivers just what advertisers want—well-defined audiences. Healthy Target lets pharmaceutical and CPG companies reach consumers through contextually relevant ads.

The app's release was just in time for a major health explosion that goes beyond the Big Data era of just a few years back, since Healthy Target will also be able to synthesize information from Apple's Health Kit, activity monitors by Fitbit and Jawbone, Telcare's wireless glucometers and Withings wireless scale.

Ziegler explains that there's room for the new WebMD app within the Apple-verse for the same reason there was room before HealthKit – the data for wearables lives in different buckets, and Healthy Target can bring “all these different data formats . . . under one roof."

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