mHealth Summit 2014: How hospitals tackle mobile app creation for patients, docs

Many healthcare provider organizations are taking a proactive approach to mobile healthcare, supplying both patients and clinicians with apps they can use to enhance care and communication.

At Boston Children's Hospital, an app that works as a patient portal is being used with parents in mind to help them better manage the care of their children. For those on the other side of care--the clinicians, physicians and nurses--Perelman School of Medicine is testing an app that brings real-time clinical data to caregivers.

During a session this week at the mHealth Summit outside of the District of Columbia, professionals from both organizations came together to talk about the ups and downs of their apps, and all the ways they are using them to provide better care.

Boston Children's Hospital

When creating their app, the hospital had to keep the parents' needs in mind every step of the way, said Stephanie Altavilla, program manager for clinical informatics.

The app has a slew of functions, according to Altavilla, and any information a parent would need about their child's care can be found, from a secure messaging system and immediate lab results to doctor's notes and radiology studies. The app even includes school forms and camps forms, all in a finger's reach, she said.

One of the important things Altavilla found through the whole process was how critical user input became. The families wanted an app they could download to their phone; something they could quickly pull up when needed.

"They had a Web app and we told them they could use the Web app on their phones, and they said 'that won't work, we don't want that,'" she said.

Because of that feedback, the hospital decided to build its own customized app, she said. That process took about eight months from the time app design began to when it was available for download. The app is available in the iTunes Store and at Google Play. Putting it in app stores was something Altavilla said the developers found helpful because of the structure it provided.

"You have to follow certain standards, and it also is tested from a security perspective so we were able to provide that additional security layer," she said.

As for top takeaways from the project, Altavilla said it's important to take the lead from those who will use the app most. In addition, it's important to have agile development.

"By the time we put out one version they were already telling us what they wanted updated in the next version. If you're not doing agile development, I don't think you can get there," she said.

Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

The original goal when creating an app for their providers was a mobile hand-off tool, Subha Airan-Javia, assistant professor in medicine, said during the session. However, they soon realized what was needed was a tool that would allow the clinicians to access all the information they needed quickly.

The organization switched gears, and decided to create an app that would focus on bringing real-time clinical data to providers in a mobile format--and one that would consolidate all of their different systems into one place.

"We started with a very simple design, putting it out there for proof of concept, 'does this actually work?' and then really building our features and expanding what we built from there," Airan-Javia said.

The app includes features such as patient summaries, care provider team info that at a click of a button and patient vitals and labs, among many other options.

When building a tool like this, it's important to think about what format you want it in, Airan-Javia added.

Originally, she said she was adamant about it only being built for a tablet, because a mobile device screen would be too small. It turns out, she said, that they needed to go with the mobile Web app because it was easier on their users to access the information on their phones than having to always carry a tablet with them.

"I think it's important to build for the hardest challenge first," she said, "and that was ours."

As for the timeline of creation of the app, Airan-Javia said they started to build the user interface in March, the pilot began in the middle of July, and that pilot was launched throughout the entire system in August. All-in-all it took about six months, she said.

For those looking to start a similar project, she said that flexibility is key.   

"Clinicians and the developers ... everyone needs to be one the same page. We need to be flexible about what we build, when we build it and how we build it."