Media Milestones and the Mainstreaming of Digital Health




By @Spitz

Mother Knows Best

A sure sign that your once geeky, quirky, highly specialized field goes legit is when a best friend’s mom gives you a call, breathlessly exclaiming that the entire Section D of the day’s New York Times is dedicated to “The Digital Doctor,” hallelujah! Gone are the days, we finally hope, when we have to tote around mountains of Manhattan Research decks to substantiate that endocrinologists own smartphones. Clearly a new era has finally dawned when even a friend’s mom is aware that her primary care doc will be prescribing a mobile health app to go with her cholesterol medication.

Timely and comprehensive, the recent NYT series covers the paradigm shift from emerging channel to entrenched point of care resource, featuring recent advances in diagnostics, physician/patient engagement, telemedicine, preventive healthcare, electronic health records, senior participation, and more, all engendered through digital and mobile. The risks and roadblocks are also addressed, bringing to light not only how far communications tech has evolved in healthcare, but what digital must still figure out to become the game changer its incredible potential demands.

After all, perhaps the biggest lesson in tech is that timing is everything. Steve Jobs understood from the very beginning that an optimal digital experience could only be realized through a seamless synergy between hardware and software, the device and the user; but it took more than two decades for the technology to catch up to that core vision, and the users’ willingness and ability to embrace it. Fast forward to today’s astonishing blend of touch screen with portability, and the iPad has revolutionized verticals from retail to entertainment to healthcare.

So mobile health has tipped mainstream, what next? Daily reads of such terrific #mhealth sites as mobihealthnews and iMedicalapps demonstrate the channel is firing on all cylinders, ripe with innovation, investment, and benefit‚îbut challenges remain equally daunting, especially posed by landscape and platform fragmentation, lack of formal guidance, and vastly differing quality and utility across both patient and healthcare professional apps and resources. Now that the FDA is serious and my friend’s mom knows all about digital docs, what can we expect from here?

Joy of UX: Portals to Apps, Search to Social

My pal Jeremy Franz (@eHealthStrat), an Experience Architect from Ignite Health and I were riffing on digital history the other day, and some light bulbs went off. As I talked about the evolution of the user experience from portals like (with their hundreds of links to help audiences find what they were looking for) to search engines like Google (with a simple keyword box for the self-empowered user), the similarity with today’s mobile landscape and where it might be headed leaped out at me. Might there be a parallel between how the Web was won and mobile’s future?

To see what I’m talking about, let’s click back a decade to the home page from 2002:

Literally hundreds of links on a single page hand-hold the user to online destinations otherwise unreachable, as the Internet was still a vast, undiscovered country for most, and being more than a few clicks away from content created confusion. But within a few years users became increasingly more online savvy, able to find and fend for themselves; as they did so the small search box in the upper right hand corner evolved to fill up the entire page, passive reception gradually evolving into active outreach, portals like Yahoo dying and being replaced by Google Search.

Hold that thought. Now let’s tap our apps on a typical smartphone and iPad screen, 2012:

Notice row after row of icons, each a gateway not necessarily to a website, but an application. Mobile is a new channel, one that can be confusing and even intimidating. To help you find your way, you’re offered numerous choices for discrete digital experiences that satisfy a particular need from only a single tap (or click) away. Sound and look familiar? Consider the similarities between a portal such as Yahoo ten years ago, and your tablet touch screen of today: Substitute a graphical box for a hyperlink and in key ways your iPad touch screen is not much different than a Web portal home page of ten years ago!

Let’s continue this line of reasoning: Just as the Yahoo portal structure gave way to Google search engine, might mobile apps similarly and eventually give way to a simpler, more intuitive, search-driven mobile interface that, instead of accessing other websites connects users with the integrated cloud? After all, effective digital experiences aren’t “websites” or “apps” but solutions to making life easier and more efficient‚îand in the case of healthcare improving outcomes and quality of life for millions of patients worldwide, and helping physicians find the best treatments.

Future of Digital: Flipbook to Storify ‚ì to Mobile Health 2020

Digital evolution has followed discrete milestones, from websites to portals to search to social to mobile. Along the way the interrelationship between technology and audience habits has been a fascinating, subtle one, where smarter users engender simpler, more dynamic digital experiences. Mashups like Flipbook dynamically aggregate content based on individual user preference, ultimately destroying individual websites. And now that we’re experiencing a unique convergence of search/social/mobile, the preferred digital healthcare platform of the imminent future will be as far from the app-strewn tablet touch screens of today as the old was from the simple and intuitive Google search home page.

But until we get there, we inhabit an app-happy digital health universe, one where our devices not only provide content, but are increasingly able to monitor and analyze our vital signs, help physicians make treatment decisions, and patients to take and adhere to medications, even preventing disease by encouraging health and wellness regimens as part of exercise and diet programs. The challenge for mobile app builders is attention and relevance: the space is increasingly crowded, and an app alone, no matter how phenomenal, can’t induce and sustain behavioral changes in a manner that makes a difference.

So our job is to understand the changing needs and digital habits of the diverse healthcare audience, and ensure our solutions remain but one part of the overall healthcare puzzle. Despite all the fragmentation, constant change, and confusion, the good news is that mobile health has truly gone mainstream. Regardless what the future holds, our parents and our kids already expect digital health to play an ever-increasing role in their lives. They seem eager and ready: Let’s not disappoint them.

Michael Spitz , known most often as just "Spitz," is Editor-in-Chief of the Pixels & Pills and a prollific tweeter, blogger, and article writer, active in digital health across all specialties. Follow him @SpitzStrategy.



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