Big insurers investing in mobile health apps

Health plans are moving past the "basics" of taking insurance functions mobile and developing wellness and diagnostic apps.

By Emily Berry — Posted Jan. 23, 2012

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Now that the largest health plans have mobile sites and common capabilities for members to look up a physician's address, display a member card or a billing address, they are moving on to building apps that are more directly involved with patients' health.

They want to provide the mobile applications that members turn to for help with staying healthy, diagnosing illnesses and communicating with their doctors.

"We're absolutely going beyond the basic," said Meg McCabe, vice president for consumer marketing and product for Aetna. "The goal is to engage people in health and wellness."

With recent investments and pilot projects announced, Aetna, along with WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group and their competitors, say they are serious about being a major part of the mobile heath movement:

  • Aetna purchased iTriage, formerly Healthagen, the maker of the popular iTriage app, for an undisclosed sum in September 2011. The app allows the user to enter symptoms to check them against common diseases and learn more about a given procedure or diagnosis and check for nearby physicians, clinics and hospitals. Healthagen was founded by two physicians.
  • WellPoint and Verizon Wireless launched a pilot program in which 100 WellPoint members with chronic diseases are given a smartphone and assigned a coach whom the member is invited to contact any time, day or night -- not just by phone call, but by videoconferencing over the 4G network.
  • UnitedHealth Group announced Jan. 9 that it launched a series of partnerships with mobile technology companies. Among them: CareSpeak, which offers a two-way texting application for medication adherence; FitNow Inc., the maker of Lose It!, a free weight loss app; and FitBit, the maker of a wireless pedometer and sleep monitor that syncs with mobile phones and computers.

All of the large health plans say they aren't interested in replacing physicians with an app but rather helping members figure out when a doctor's care is necessary, then connecting the patient and doctor using mobile technology.

Joseph Smith, MD, PhD, is chief medical officer for West Wireless Health, a San Diego-based medical research organization funded solely by the Gary and Mary West Foundation. (See correction)

"The revolution in mobile health is not about replacing physicians, but rather in extending their reach and better targeting their time and talent -- precious resources in the era of a graying population," Dr. Smith said in an email.

He said remote biometric monitoring devices will give physicians better information faster. That technology "amplifies the clinician's ability to treat the most sick the quickest, even at great distance," he said.

Anthony Nguyen, MD, senior vice president of care management at WellPoint, said the goal is to use mobile technology to make the best possible use of increasingly scarce physician time, given the shortage of primary care physicians that is only expected to worsen.

Health insurers are challenged with standing out in a crowded field -- and with proving to consumers that a health insurer can be trusted and helpful.

"What we've seen is that if you offer something of value, people will use it," McCabe said. "We have to focus strongly on helping the consumer navigate through the clutter to what's going to get them to the finish line."

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