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Mar 2013

When apps help you better understand your disease

In November 2012, The Globe and Mail published an interesting study showing how apps can enable patients to better understand their diseases by accessing their “personal health information in a comprehensive way”.  They can also serve as reminders to take medication regularly and as persuasive technologies which increase “the motivation to adhere to a healthy life”.

A 100-participant study conducted over 1 year by the University Health Network (Toronto) showed that a mobile blood pressure app significantly decreased blood pressure to an extent which is equivalent to decreasing risk of cardiovascular mortality by 20%. Participants increased their awareness of blood pressure through an immediate feedback system which influenced their behavior (take medication, make changes in their lifestyle). The study also found that the mobile app was not for everyone; it increased anxiety in one of the participants.

Importance of design to help patients taking action

The article also underlines the power of an efficient design: “our research shows that if a medical app is well designed, it can make a big difference,” said Joseph Cafazzo, a medical engineer. Dr. Alexander Logan added: “I think, without feedback messaging, without reminders to take their blood-pressure readings, it – their motivation to take regularly their blood pressure – is going to fall by the wayside.”

The process of designing a medical app should always consider how patients actually learn and acquire health-related knowledge in their daily lives.

What content is relevant to them? What elements do they need to focus on to understand what’s wrong, understand what’s right, and eventually take action?

Healthcare app developers need to remember to identify meaningful elements, clearly organize content, signal uncommon states, provide clear reminders, and provide feedback with visual representations. These are only a few of the important design considerations required when designing a healthcare app enabling patients to engage with their own healthcare.





Pierre-Alexandre: Last week Marcio and I had the opportunity to catch Jozef Cafazzo’s presentation at the Mobile Healthcare Summit in Toronto. This project clearly demonstrates how a well-designed app can actually influence people in a positive way regarding their health. But this is only one of many possible ways mobile applications can be used in the health field. Next week, in my summary of the Mobile Healthcare Summit, I will discuss some of the other ways that mobile technology is being used by health specialists to improve their efficiency and to better accommodate their patients.

Jay: last week, I made my way to a talk by Jason Hwang on disruptive innovation in healthcare. The material was thought provoking. Speaking to a room of doctors and business leaders, Hwang made a convincing case that more money needs to go toward supporting medical innovations originating from outside the typical channels. Using the growth of technology as a metaphor, the talk outlined the high likelihood that so called “disruptive” innovations aimed at increasing the efficiency of our overburdened and unsustainable health systems are more likely to come out of a basement startup than a hospital or research lab.  These new apps and healthcare tools may be fringe and outside the system at this point, but if our healthcare policy leaders are serious about improvement, they need to learn when to get out of the way.

This week, I attended a panel session targeting healthcare technology at the Wavefront Summits, where a different but equally valid point was emerging. New healthcare technologies are already here, and yet the healthcare system has not dramatically changed. In the past decade, electronic health records have been tauted as a “revolution”, yet even the most heavily funded solutions appear to be more of an inconvenience to both doctors and patients. As the only User Experience specialist in the room, I was happy to hear that discussion between leading healthcare technologists [Harry Kim (HP), Eric Gombrich (NexJ Systems), Bill Pascal (Canadian Medical Association), Ed Siemens (Qualcomm Life), and Julie Rezler (Clinexus)] kept coming back to the patient.

The industry seems ripe for user-centered design.  Before any implementation is built – whether it’s a multi-billion dollar EMR application or a mobile app for patient engagement – meticulous user research needs to be done to understand doctors, patients, administrators, and anyone else who may come into contact with the new technology.  “Design thinking” workshops needs to conceptualize the vision for a new intervention as early as possible, and that vision needs to be systematically tested and evaluated before a single line of code is even written.  Only in this way can we truly put real human beings at the center of the design process and expect to make a real difference in healthcare.


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