Digital health patient engagement lessons from … burritos?

Person holding an iPhone
Is the answer to digital health's patient engagement conundrum buried in a burrito?

The digital health industry is at a crossroads. Its potential to improve healthcare is vast, but patient engagement is still a challenge.

Burritos might be the solution. Yes, burritos. 

At least that’s what John Torous, M.D., co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, wrote in a post for The Tincture Collective. Using two burrito-centric anecdotes, Torous argued that the healthcare industry needs to adopt a practical mindset when it comes to the power of algorithms, while also making more of an effort to understand why patients use digital health apps.

Torous highlights Chipotle’s response to a rash of E. coli outbreaks in 2016, in which the fast casual restaurant chain mailed out 20 million coupons for free burritos and distributed another five million through their mobile app. Two-thirds of the mobile coupons were redeemed compared to just 17.5% of the mailed coupons.

The lesson, according to Torous: Even the lure of a free burrito wasn’t enough to achieve 100% engagement. Although some digital apps might be able to achieve 67% engagement, most don’t, which speaks to the industry’s need to understand how and why people use mobile health apps.

Digital health experts have often pointed to the industry’s struggle to engage patients, noting that some apps can take cues from clinical trials that make engagement a priority.

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“We need to untangle why people are using health apps in the real world, outside of the clinical studies setting where they are paid or coached to partake,” Torous wrote. “What is the actual bar or gold standard for health app engagement? It’s a toss-up at this point but if Chipotle can reach 67%, perhaps digital health should raise the bar.”

Doctors have also worried that digital apps aren’t used routinely because most adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Last year, the American Medical Association’s James Madara said healthcare needs to weed out “digital snake oil” from useful tools, and has urged physicians to get more involved with mHealth app development.