Online rewards key to effectiveness of apps for your hospital's patients

Many health CIOs are trying to tease out or develop health apps that are useful, rather than simply entertaining--and thus worthy of being provided as part of clinical therapies. And recent research shows that a health apps' longevity is frighteningly short-lived, often less than 30 days.

That may be, in part, because many fitness, wellness and other health apps are patient-centered, allowing users to track and monitor their own health data, but not much more.

"Everyone is excited about being able to automatically capture data, but that will not change behavior on its own," David Rose, a health app entrepreneur tells MIT's Technology Review. "We need to get that data into people's lives in a way they will respond to."

In April we wrote about an intriguing study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association about health games and how important ease-of-use and clear feedback are for success. But an emerging crop of health apps indicates that success may be far more tied to social and gaming behaviors than to user preference. And that can be crucial if you're building (or using) apps to help manage long-term, chronic conditions like diabetes or obesity.

A few of the concepts that may prove key for successful apps, going forward:

Real rewards: Some initial health and fitness apps rely on the simple satisfaction of watching one's numbers improve--falling glucose scores, weight loss, and the like. But a few recent studies show that real rewards, such as songs on iTunes or virtual accessories for an online avatar, can be major motivators. New apps are capitalizing on this trend, like EarnedIT, where users working toward weight control can earn energy bars and yogurt, or, where users can earn coupons at local stores just setting healthy goals and meeting them.

Positive partnering: Giving patients a virtual partner may be important in health apps. A new study shows that users are more motivated and will do more exercise if they have an online--versus a real--partner.

"One of the key hurdles people cite in not working out is a lack of motivation," Deborah Feltz, chair of the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University told TGDaily. Research has shown working out with a partner increases motivation, and with a virtual partner, you are removing the social anxiety that some people feel working out in public."

Interesting note: With health gaming, it may be important to adjust the ability of the virtual partner to challenge the users at some points, but allow them to take the lead at others.

"Individuals can become discouraged if they believe they can never keep up with their partner, or on the other hand, become bored if their partner is always slower. With a virtual partner, this can be addressed," Feltz tells TGDaily.

Consistent competition: MIT's Review gave an example of a health app company, Zeo, whose staff are in constant competition to improve their sleep scores, which they record through the company's primary app product. Staff post their data online, on office walls, report it during staff meetings, and even on their business cards. The competition appears to be constant, and motivating.

"A number of startups are now forming around the intersection of self-tracking, social networks, and gaming, in an effort to keep users engaged and motivated enough to meet their goals," the Review posits.

For hospitals, ACOs, and others with quality outcomes on their minds, health app competitions may be more effective in gaining patient compliance than the oft-repeated, and often-ignored clinician recommendation.

Occasional penalties: Some new health innovations, like Withings' new electronic scale, can report the users' results publicly--in this case, posting the user's weight on Twitter. The idea is that users will work harder if they know their slip-ups will be revealed. It's a pretty aggressive strategy, and one that will be interesting to follow. The company's founder tells the Review that not many users have used this option thus far. - Sara