Connected medical devices improve patient engagement, but not for long

Connected medical devices improve patient engagement, but not for long

Users last less than six months and abandonment rates remain high

Connected medical devices improve patient engagement, but not for long
Connected medical devices improve patient engagement, but not for long

Automating health tracking using connected medical devices and apps can increase long-term patient engagement in health activities compared with manual tracking, according to a recent study.

This is the conclusion made by online pharmacy, Walgreens, and the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI), following an examination of participants in Walgreens Balance Rewards for health choices program (BRhc).

The study explored the impact of manual versus automatic data entries through a support device or via apps. It was published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Connected medical devices add incentives

BRhc is a self-monitoring program that allows members to track health activities and receive incentives for continued tracking and healthy behaviors.

Commencing in 2014, the researchers supposedly examined activity tracking data — including exercise, weight, sleep, blood pressure, blood glucose data recorded, tobacco use and oxygen saturation — from more than 450,000 BRhc participants.

According to reports in mobihealthnews, the results showed that 77 percent of users manually recorded their activities and participated in the program for an average of five weeks. Whereas, those who tracked their activity automatically, using BHrc supported medical devices or apps, stayed engaged for four times longer – an average of 20 weeks participation.

Understanding “real world connectivity”

Dr. Eric Topol, STSI director, said in a statement that by conducting the research with a larger pool of participants it allows STSI and Walgreens “to understand real world connectivity with mobile device health applications, along with behavior and outcome patterns.”

Harry Leider, the chief medical officer at Walgreens, suggested that patient empowerment and understanding of their own care and wellness could be be encouraged by providing connected health tools that enable data tracking of healthy behaviors, combined with incentives and trusted professional support.

“We’re especially encouraged by the results of this study,” Leider said. “In the two years since it was initiated, we’ve seen a shift from the majority of members in the program tracking their activities manually, to most now tracking them automatically.”

Related: IoT the most ‘powerful disruptor in healthcare’

Positive change but work left to do

We’ve witnessed some very important and exciting innovations with IoT in healthcare this year, however, as in many vertical industries, the sector is not quite there yet.

Just this month, for example, we’ve reported on what’s possibly the world’s smallest mHealth sensor for monitoring blood flow in subcutaneous tissue, and how healthcare organizations will soon be able to build voice assistants for patients in their home.

Yet, just 12 percent of people worldwide actually own a connected healthcare device, and, while this study suggests patients will use their device for 20 weeks (which really isn’t long; less than half a year), abandonment rates for smartwatches and fitness trackers are at 29 and 30 percent respectively.

Largely this is down to functionality, i.e. ‘what can these connected devices do that my smartphone can’t?’ But it’s also down to the data that is produced. At present, much of the data is reactive and not proactive, which means that glucose monitors for diabetics only tell them when their glucose levels are too high or low after the fact.

Tim Omer, citizen health hacker, put it perfectly at our recent Internet of Healthcare conference when he said: “What use is real-time information if I can’t access it real-time?”

Helping health apps achieve “stickiness”

Internet of Business asked Amber Vodegel, co-founder of Health & Parenting, for further insight into how connected medical devices and apps could improve patient care.

“Health apps are very useful for gaining a better understanding about our physical and mental health and to reach the goals we set ourselves,” she said. “Thanks to wearables such as FitBit and Apple Watch automatic monitoring has never been easier.

“However, as the study has shown it can be difficult for apps to change people’s long-term behavior. Automation goes a long way, but apps need to be fun and easy to use. This is irrespective of whether an app is used to become generally fitter or manage a chronic condition, such as diabetes.

“Leader boards, simple rewards and incentives are a good start, but apps need to go beyond. A good user experience, carefully planned meta stories and user feedback loops will help health apps achieve ‘stickiness’. Users that spend more time and keep coming back for more are more likely to form positive health habits that last.”

So there’s been good progress, but widespread adoption of IoT in this sector is still some way off. Maybe that will change in the coming years?