What Do Patients Want in Self-Management mHealth Apps?

Patients, providers, and caregivers all must weed through the most valuable self-management mHealth apps as chronic disease management continues to go digital. Not all mHealth apps are created equal, and patients have opinions about which will be most effective in supporting their own care.

In one recent study (http://mhealth.jmir.org/2017/9/e141/#Body), researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences identified which features adolescents and young adults preferred in chronic care self-management apps.

The team set out specifically to develop an app for adolescent patients managing brain and spinal cord anomalies (BSA) and targeting the tool to help patients transition into chronic care self-management independent of their parents, guardians, and other caregivers.

“Typically, self-management skills progress during the adolescent and young adult years, which is a developmentally appropriate time in one’s life to seek separation from parents and gain full independence with regard to self-management,” researchers explained.

“Unfortunately, many adolescents and young adults with chronic illness or disability often fail to develop the self-management skills necessary to independently handle medical and self-management routines.”

The assessment sought to determine which app characteristics might lead to patient activation (https://patientengagementhit.com/news/what-is-the-patient-activation-measure-in-patient-centered-care) on mHealth apps and keep patients from neglecting chronic care self-management plans, the team said. Through a series of six focus groups including 16 patients and 11 caregivers, the researchers identified five key mHealth traits:

  • Ease of use, registration
  • Aesthetic appeal and engagement
  • Level of stakeholder education
  • Inclusion of social support system
  • Use of personalized health information

The focus group participants explained that they had previously neglected self-management apps because of difficult registration and use. Tools need large buttons, easy enrollment, and few keystrokes, the focus groups revealed. If the app is too difficult to use or download, the patient will likely abandon the app, respondents said.

Additionally, mHealth apps need to be visually exciting and engaging, the researchers found. While navigable apps (https://patientengagementhit.com/news/mhealth-use-hinges-on-patient-perceptions-of-app-efficacy) will always be favorable to more complicated tools, patients are also looking for an interesting experience. Bright colors and rich imagery will motivate more patients to continue mHealth app use.

Making app reminders and alarms more exciting was another important topic, the team reported. Patients have a propensity to ignore reminders and alarms, and need these notifications to be more exciting to demand attention.

Apps might allow for patients to upload music as an alarm tone, add a trivia question or joke, or use animated displays to compel patients to pay attention to the notification, respondents suggested.

Self-management mHealth apps also need adequate education and preparation information, the researchers found. This information must be personalized to the patient’s specific condition, as opposed to general chronic care management tips.

Patients also want to be directed to specialty resources about their specific conditions, researchers reported. Older patients hedging on young adulthood also expressed interest in a secure area to store their personal health information so that their health resources are all in one place.

Transforming mHealth apps into health-related social media platforms would also be appealing, respondents said. Most patients use their phones for texting and other social media apps. Adding social elements into health interventions may be a significant tool for patient activation (https://patientengagementhit.com/news/how-mhealth-apps-drive-patient-behavior-change-motivation) on apps.

“The greatest motivator for long-term use of the mHealth system was not tangible (i.e., money, games, and free movie), instead it was the ability to engage with peers and family and share experiences regarding goal attainment and milestones,” the researchers reported. “Sharing their successes so that others may learn about and acknowledge their accomplishments appeared to be exceptionally motivating.”

Patients also expressed an interest in tracking their personal health information and progress via the app. Seeing how their health improves and meeting individualized goals adds greater value to the app, respondents observed.

“Tracking health trends and receiving information based on those trends was a common topic of discussion,” researchers recalled. “The ability to receive basic guidance or advice for self-management based on the information being collected through the mHealth app seemed to increase a sense of independence for the participants.”

Fostering a sense of health ownership and self-efficacy (https://patientengagementhit.com/news/self-management-tech-better-for- wellness-than-chronic-illness) through goal-setting and education were key themes, the researchers concluded. These elements will ideally create an app that motivates and trains adolescent and young adult patients in managing their own chronic illnesses. 

Originally written by: Sara Heath

Originally published in: PatientEngagementHIT