The Pros & Cons of Different Mobile Health Management Approaches

Mobile’s “anywhere, anytime” capabilities are quickly becoming the preferred way for people to connect with health content, their personal biometric data, health guidance, and even their clinician. In the healthcare and wellness space, there is increasingly greater focus on the use of mobile technology. When defining this term, most people focus on the device (i.e., the mobile phone). However, when building products and services for the health and wellness space, the definition is not so straightforward.

So what does the term “mobile technology” actually mean in healthcare and health management? When WebMD looks at developing mobile technology, we break it down into three “modalities” or sub-technologies, all available through a mobile phone; mobile web, text messaging, and native applications. Each of these modalities has its strengths and weaknesses.

Mobile web for health management sites

This modality is the use of a mobile browser (typically on a smartphone) to access the Internet, just like with a PC. Great strides have been made to optimize web sites for mobile phone viewing, and many have the “look and feel” of native apps (see below).

One of mobile web’s advantages is that it is not defined by operating system (OS), so nearly any smartphone OS (Apple, Android, Blackberry, Windows) can access information. Mobile web also has some design advantages, in that it can provide a more consistent user interface with PC-based web, and client customization is relatively easy. For these reasons, mobile web product development can take place rapidly.

However, mobile web has its downside, too. It is inherently passive—it can’t proactively reach out to people to encourage them to use it. Functionality can be impeded (or unavailable) if cell signals aren’t strong, or if Wi-Fi service isn’t accessible. The need to reach out to the Internet to gather information means that mobile web is not as fast as native apps. Finally, unlike native apps, mobile web technology can’t (yet) access mobile phones’ built-in features, such as cameras.

Text messaging for health reminders

Of the three mobile modalities, text messaging is the oldest, having been around since the early 1990s. Text messaging is widely used worldwide to send and receive short personal messages, receive sports scores, transfer money, and in the case of health and wellness, for reminders.

One of text messaging’s biggest advantages is the functionality that mobile web lacks—the ability to proactively reach out to people; to grab their attention.

One of text messaging’s biggest advantages is the functionality that mobile web lacks—the ability to proactively reach out to people; to grab their attention.

  In other words, text messaging can be used as a trigger for a call to action, such as asking someone to track daily exercise. And text messaging is a very effective trigger: research has shown that text message open rates are 95%, whereas e-mail open rates can be as low as 11%. 1 Importantly, text can be used on almost every mobile phone; this is a key advantage, as a significantly large number of mobile phone users in the United States still do not have smartphones.

But text messaging does have its disadvantages. One is that each text message may have a cost to the mobile subscriber. Also, because it is only able to transmit short messages, text messaging does not allow for a more engaging user interface, such as graphics and colors.

Native mobile health apps

The third modality, native apps, is one that installs a large amount of data and functionality directly onto the smartphone, as opposed to having to reach out to the Internet. Put another way, apps are small pieces of software installed onto people’s phones. As such, app functionality is governed by the underlying OS, and tends to be distributed (downloaded) from an “app store” ecosystem closely aligned with the smartphone manufacturer or OS developer—for example, apps for Apple’s iPhone tend to be downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store.

Apps have a number of advantages over the two modalities described above. Foremost, they are specifically built for the mobile phone and operating system being used, so they can provide a fantastic user interface. As most of the data already resides on the phone, native app functionality is very fast, which leads to user satisfaction. Native apps have an advantage over mobile web in that they can be proactive, through the use of push notifications. Uniquely, native apps can leverage smartphones’ inherent capabilities, such as cameras and accelerometers.

But native apps do have their flaws. Because of being specific to mobile device and OS, different versions of apps have to be developed to support populations of users with different mobile phones. This slows down the development process considerably. Also, because the app stores can have strict rules about app design, it can be difficult to customize native apps on a client-by-client basis.

What’s the best approach for mobile health?

To the question, “which is the best mobile approach for the health & wellness space?” the answer is, “all of the above.” Each of these versions of mobile technology needs to be used in a way that accentuates its strengths, to ultimately lead people down the path to better health. Thus, for WebMD, “mobile technology” means all three modalities—expect to see all of them offered in 2013!

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