Healthcare insurers are using apps to streamline patient-care systems, by connecting with and educating members, and ultimately reining in spiraling costs.
The Future of mHealth is our series that explores opportunities and challenges of mHealth, which aims to put widespread access to healthcare within the reach of those who need it most.
Several large U.S. health insurance companies, including Aetna, WellPoint and UnitedHealth Group, currently offer mobile apps that help members find network providers and perform other simple functions.
On the surface, these apps strengthen connections with members and providers. However, the mobile health revolution holds deeper implications for the insurance industry, which plans to enhance future mobile offerings to more directly impact patient health.
Ultimately, if insurers can urge members to take better care of themselves and use the system more efficiently, their membership will be healthier overall.
Insurance companies have long sent out glossy health magazines to members, beefed up websites with wellness information, and offered classes on everything from weight loss to asthma management to urge members to make healthy lifestyle changes and take charge of chronic conditions.
Insurers now plan to expand on these wellness initiatives by targeting members more directly through smartphones and tablets. As a result of fostering well-being and efficiency, insurers could help lower the burden on the healthcare system and save money.
Big Insurers Lead the Way
Several recent purchases and partnerships between insurers, app companies and the mobile industry show strong movement in this direction.
Aetna bought iTriage last fall, which makes an app that checks symptoms against common diseases, provides information on medical tests, procedures and diagnoses, and connects people to nearby healthcare facilities and doctors.
A pilot partnership between WellPoint and Verizon gave smartphones to 100 members who have chronic diseases, according to the American Medical Association. The insurance company then assigns each member a coach who is available around the clock via phone call, text message or video conference. The program aims to find out whether mobile coaching can improve self-management of chronic conditions, and could empower members to need fewer healthcare services and interventions.
A third large insurer, UnitedHealth Group, announced partnerships this year with app companies focusing on weight loss and fitness. By offering these apps to members under its own brand, UHG will help members stick to an exercise program, eat better and follow a weight-loss plan through a group of interactive mobile apps that encourage, inspire and motivate change.
Mobile Helps Navigate a Complex System
Health insurers say they aren’t replacing a physician’s advice with their next generation of app offerings, but simply trying to help members navigate a complex system more efficiently.
Insurance apps will soon help members decide whether a doctor’s visit is truly necessary, for example, or answer simple questions about tests to save on multiple calls to the doctor or insurance company. Functions like these aim to reduce spiraling healthcare costs and enable insurers to transform from simple claims processors to valuable resources for maintaining and improving health.
Health insurance apps reach out to professionals, as well, helping insurance companies take advantage of doctors’ increasing engagement with mobile devices to alert them to claims issues, pending changes, new procedures and other information.
As health insurance grows more complex, both doctors and patients need education and support to help the system work smoothly, and mobile apps can help insurers fill that need.
However, insurers must tread cautiously as they enter the mobile realm, emphasizing privacy protection, member safeguards, and adherence to strict medical guidelines, in an effort to avoid alienating members or providers and reduce the risk of potential legal repercussions down the road.