Mobile health: Making the business case

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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the FierceHealthPayer eBook, Payers and mHealth: Best Practices for the Move to Mobile.

Mobile health brings new opportunities to connect with customers at any time and in any place. Public demand for it is soaring. The question is: By leveraging the mobile channel, can payers also improve quality and reduce costs?

The costs and investment return for mobile health strategies vary depending on resource constraints, the number and types of offerings and their responsiveness to customers' needs. Nevertheless, known demands, risks and benefits of mobile health can inform business cases.

The information that follows was gleaned from payers whose market shares and breath of resources differ widely.

The demand for mobile

The numbers tell it all--and make a compelling business case for investing in mobile. In one year, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) saw growth of more than 440 percent in website traffic coming from tablets. There was also a 105 percent increase in smartphone hits.

Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island (NHPRI) reports that in 2011, 3 percent of its website traffic came from mobile devices. In 2012, that figure rose to 8 percent.

Offering an on-line app led to a 14 percent increase in total enrollment applications for California's children's Medicaid program between 2010 and 2011, according to a Mathematica Policy Research study.

Besides tracing sources of website traffic, mobile health demand in your market can be measured by learning customers' communication preferences through questions on enrollment applications, welcome calls or care management consent forms. Some organizations are convening focus groups to learn more about demand for mobile-friendly features.

The benefits of mobile

Mobile can help with wellness initiatives--which not only benefit patients but also help ensure the financial health of the insurance industry. It's also incredibly popular with customers. BCBSNC received an outpouring of positive response to its mobile website.

But mobile initiatives can do a whole lot more.

Accreditation standards from the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) do not explicitly address mobile technology, but mobile initiatives may document compliance with two standards: self-management tools to help members stay healthy and reduce risk and innovations in member services.

Mobile communication speed may also help payers efficiently complete programming to improve outcomes measured by NCQA's Healthcare Effectiveness Data & Information Set (HEDIS).

Though sources say it's too soon to tell the full impact of mobile offerings on finances, there are some possibilities for savings. For example, provider-finder apps can use Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies--and can influence customers' real-time provider choices. For example, someone with a broken arm may visit a less-expensive urgent care center instead of an emergency room.

Another cost benefit? Mobile access to benefit information may reduce service center calls. UnitedHealth Group's Health for Me application, which helps members access claims history, has been downloaded by more than 30,000 people. That doesn't mean that the call center received 30,000 fewer calls, of course. But alternate points of contact can ease call volumes.

Finally, mobile has a broad reach. Mobile initiatives can improve care management outcomes for low-income populations, some of whom cannot be reliably reached by mail or landlines due to transient lifestyles. If nurses can contact these members by cell, higher savings may result from meeting care management goals.

To read the rest of this and other articles, download FierceHealthPayer's free eBook, Payers and mHealth: Best Practices for the Move to Mobile.