Health app success: Mix start-up spirit with clinician know-how

The Mayo Clinic is at the forefront of app development among healthcare systems, and I may have just figured out why.

A terrific blog at Fast Company by Mayo Clinic software designer James Oliver Senior and business planning manager Adam Dole lays out a multi-layered development strategy that most healthcare practitioners could benefit from, if they want to get their apps to market.

The secret, they say, is to create an apps team that spans the IT, clinical and business sides of your operation. And that's just what they've done at Mayo, with "an inter-disciplinary product team that includes designers, strategists, healthcare professionals, technology partners and, most importantly, patients," the authors explain.

Business skills are crucial to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to the project. Most apps are disruptive in one way or another, and can get derailed early on by naysayers, red-light thinkers and the specter of implementation difficulties. Entrepreneurs, by their very nature, ignore many of the obstacles to their idea, and push forward if they truly see the possibility of success.

They're also more likely to reach out to unusual partners, as Mayo does with its Healthy Aging and Independent Living (HAIL) lab, a live prototyping experiment that's testing a host of healthy-aging-at-home technologies. The partners aren't just doctors and developers, though--they're also insurers and retail distributors.

That said, all this go-forward spirit needs to be guided by clinical team members. The authors' mantra is "empathize like a doctor, design like an entrepreneur."

"Today's established healthcare institutions, rife with legacy systems and bureaucratic processes, have to learn from fast-moving entrepreneurial startups," they write. "We believe that a successful transformation of the health care system will come from a collaboration between the two, leveraging their unique strengths, expertise, and knowledge."

On the clinical side, physicians have to inform the app's function and utility, ensuring that it not only serves a critical patient need, but also that it works within clinicians' natural workflow. Physicians understand the way healthcare institutions actually work, how technology might fit (or not) into the existing processes, and what organizational obstacles a new mobile solution might face.

On the IT side, some say that having physicians learn a little code can go a long way toward ensuring the final app hits the bull's-eye. Medical student Craig Monson, writing for iMedicalAppspoints out that learning some coding basics can help physicians evaluate the developers' work, run early experiments on the initial concept, and understand the design and technical challenges their app might face. It also will allow them to be taken seriously by the developers who will be implementing their ideas.

The upshot: Hospitals who want to replicate the app success of the Mayo Clinic will need to bring some pretty disparate players together, and ensure they have the authority, scope and resources to work together to produce an app that not only runs, but will engage patients, and ultimately improve health outcomes. - Sara