Health insurance companies are critical to mHealth adoption

The potential benefits of mobile healthcare from the perspective of patients, physicians, and providers is often touted. Perhaps less amplified is the payers' financial interest in minimizing their risk by actively promoting the health of their policyholders. In fact, insurers are among the healthcare industry's most important stakeholders in keeping members healthy. The goal is to improve people's overall health through behavioral change. 

Although in the early stages of their initiatives, mHealth adopters like Aetna, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth Group are emerging as leaders in this space. According to an article published in a FierceHealthPayer eBook last summer, Kaiser Permanente and some other payers have created their own mobile apps. Among Kaiser's mHealth offerings are Mix It Up, an online nutrition program; Thrive Across America, a physical activity program; Everybody Walk!, a personalized walking program; and KP Preventive Care, an app offering personalized health reminders.

For its part, UnitedHealth Group has aligned with several mobile app providers: CareSpeak Communications, whose app helps patients manage chronic disease and related medication through two-way text messaging; LoseIt!, which helps manage weight; and Fitbit, whose wireless tracker counts steps taken, stairs climbed and calories burned, and provides a link to a website to analyze the results and compare them with peer groups.

Insurers also are moving to mobile platforms that combine their own mobile apps with third-party, consumer-facing apps. Today, Aetna launched a new "What's Your Healthy?" campaign that includes a fully integrated consumer website and mobile platform called CarePass, which will enable consumers to track some of the best health and wellness apps conveniently from one online hub.  CarePass connects apps on its platform and easily allows consumers to manage their fitness and set health and wellness goals. The site also encourages people to eat and live healthier and monitors personal health information.

Also this past week, Humana announced a partnership with AMC Health in launching a nine-month telehealth pilot that will provide in-home monitoring to 450 Humana Medicare Advantage members in Ohio who have congestive heart failure. The Humana Cares Heart Failure Remote Monitoring Program will include Bluetooth-enabled scales and blood pressure monitors, linked to a cellular modem and Interactive Voice Response Technology.

This kind of focus on behavioral change and improved patient monitoring to lower cost, while improving health outcomes, is well-placed. And, under the Affordable Care Act, insurers will no doubt seek to increase so-called wellness incentives to make healthcare more cost-efficient.

"The passage of the Affordable Care Act is forcing a major restructuring of the healthcare sector and health insurers must innovate to demonstrate value to their customers (employers) and improve margins. As the industry shifts from a fee-for-service to outcomes-based reimbursement models, insurers are implementing several strategies to survive in this new world order," wrote John Moore, founder and managing partner of Chilmark Research, in an August 2012 report. Nevertheless, Moore concludes that most payers are still sitting on the sidelines.

Although payers are "experimenting" with health and wellness apps, a January 2013 Ernst & Young report cited the fact that current reimbursement payments for mobile or remote care are largely limited to remote rural areas. "The transformation of that system of incentives from pay-for-service to pay-for-performance is likely to take time and, therefore, slow mainstream adoption of mHealth technology." Still, the report concludes that payers' adoption of mHealth technology "seems inevitable" with the the only remaining question: how fast--or slow--will it become mainstream? - Greg (@Slabodkin

PS: Be sure to sign up for FierceHealthPayer's webinar, "Establishing a mobile strategy for your health plan", which takes place this Thursday, June 20, at 2 p.m. EST. The webinar features speakers from HCSC and Independence Blue Cross who will discuss their experiences and best practices for using mobile technologies.