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Business Report

Will Any Health App Ever Really Succeed?

There are wildly successful apps for mapping, sending e-mail, and catapulting birds. Why aren’t there any for health care?

Smartphones are the fastest-spreading consumer technology in history, but they’re still little used in health care.

Geoffrey Clapp thinks a mobile app can make health care better—so much so, in fact, that his upcoming app is called just that: Better.

The app is being tested at the Mayo Clinic, which is an investor in Clapp’s startup, and is slated to launch in October. It aims to let people use a smartphone to reach a doctor, find a diagnosis, or keep track of their medical records. Storing personal medical data and using health-tracking features will be free, but users will be charged monthly fees for instant access to nurses and health coaches.

Better, also the name of the company, is among a slew of health and fitness companies concentrating on the mobile Internet market. So far, however, health apps have failed to take off. To the disappointment of “e-health” advocates who hope to see such apps transform the medical landscape, the number of Americans using technology to track their health or fitness didn’t change between 2010 and early 2013, according to data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

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Business models have been elusive, too. Google launched the Web application Google Health in 2008 as a way for people to corral their health records online, but it was not widely adopted, and it shut down last year. Patients battling health problems complain that phone app developers have yet to develop truly useful products.

One of Better’s basic goals is giving people easy access to their health records by smartphone, something that’s becoming possible as hospitals shift from paper to electronic records. Such information may be useful to have on hand not only when dealing with a serious disease but also at unexpected times, such as when an administrator asks for a child’s vaccination report on the first day of school. Clapp thinks easy and quick access to medical information will cut down on health-care costs by advising people, for instance, when a visit to the emergency room is called for or when seeing their regular doctor will suffice.  

Paul Limburg, a Mayo Clinic doctor who is working with Better, says the app addresses some patients’ complaints that health care is too confusing and sometimes hard to access. The Minnesota health center has already made more than 75 health-related apps available.

Better, which Clapp says will be available first on the iPhone, will include a version of Mayo’s online symptom checker, as well as access to location-based data like local pollen counts and lists of healthy restaurants in your area. The app will also give Mayo Clinic patients direct access to their health records. Because it supports other standards for transmitting patient data, such as Blue Button, it could work with other hospital systems as well.

To generate revenue, Clapp says, the app will offer access to paid services: customers may be able to push a button to speak by phone to a trained nurse, or get help coördinating tests and doctor appointments at the Mayo Clinic. Clapp wouldn’t disclose the pricing scheme, but he said an average customer might pay around $125 per month for what he called “medical concierge services.”

Laurence Baker, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, says that while there’s “tremendous potential” in organizing patient medical records, it may be difficult to get parties such as insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals to share the data, and to get patients to use and trust apps that include such information.

Clapp says that Better still needs to iron out some legal details to secure patient records electronically and ensure compliance with different states’ rules (for example, some states allow telemedicine across state lines only via videoconference, while others allow the practice over audio). But about 500 patients, doctors, and nurses are already testing the app, he says, using it to track pregnancy, diabetes, hypertension, or their children’s health.

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