Ministry puts information at people's fingertips with free mobile 'apps'

March 15, 2013


With more than 90 million smartphones in use in the U.S., and hundreds of thousands of applications, or 'apps,' for mobile devices, people use their phones for everything from managing finances to whistling for their dogs. Yes, there's an app for that, too.

Ministry members are creating their own apps to make it easier for patients to navigate the health care system, to find credible, practical health care information and to communicate with their health care providers.

"The world is moving online and into mobile applications — people use their phones for everything now," said Jan Ciccarelli, director of marketing and public relations for Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Ill. "We want to talk to people in their language — to give information to them in the way they want to access it."

Chris Young, vice president of special project implementation for St. Louis-based Ascension Health said, "Individuals are becoming more actively engaged in managing their health and well-being, and mobile apps are an important part of that trend."

Ascension Health built template apps, one for iPhones and one for Androids, and 26 of its ministries have customized them. Users tap the apps for information on mission, history and values, and for self-edited "favorites" lists of their providers.

Appetite for technology
According to Nielsen research almost half of mobile phone users own smartphones and more than two-thirds of people who got mobile phones over a three-month period last year chose a smartphone over a feature phone, which is a mobile phone without advanced computer capabilities. Online market research company eMarketer estimates that by year-end 2015 nearly 110 million Americans will have a smartphone.

Americans love their apps. Nielsen research confirms they're downloading more apps each year — with an average of 41 apps per smartphone — and spending more time using those apps than using standard web content. Standard web content is made to be viewed on a computer screen and accessed with a keyboard, while apps are designed to be viewed on a mobile device and accessed with touch screens.

Toddlers to nonagenarians can master smartphone apps, the best of which are designed to be simple and intuitive to use. Although a smartphone might be considered a luxury item, it is one that is becoming ubiquitous, crossing racial, ethnic and economic divides.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project slightly greater percentages of blacks and Hispanics own smartphones than do whites.

Reaching vulnerable populations
Experts from the Disparities Solution Center at Massachusetts General Hospital believe mobile phones have great potential as tools to reach and teach vulnerable populations.

A mobile data application funded by KentuckyOne Health of Louisville, Ky., allows clients of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program to track their account balance and it points them to the nearest WIC-approved grocer. Since July, more than 750 WIC clients have used the app.

"This empowers marginalized people — we're letting recipients tell us what they need, and then we make that happen," said Alice Bridges, KentuckyOne Health vice president of healthy communities.

Easy does it
According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project almost six in 10 Americans seek health information online. By making information available from anywhere a tower emits a signal, smartphones add an element of convenience for multitasking adults.

According to Dr. Richard Vaughn, chief medical information officer for SSM Health Care, St. Louis, "It is rapidly becoming an expectation that online access (to health information) be offered to patients and families. Offering patients easy access to their health information can lead to higher patient engagement, satisfaction and health outcomes."

The marketing and information technology experts involved in rolling out apps for hospitals and health systems said it takes minimal time and budget to launch many apps, since many vendors can work off of templates. In-house app developers can get started with free code libraries online.

St. Francis Medical Center of Trenton, N.J., spent just a few weeks and about $5,000 developing the physician directory, information guide and campus map app it launched in January. iPhone users can download the software free at the Apple app store and use it to find directions to the hospital, a campus map, information on hours and details about physicians practicing at St. Francis. Valerie Metzker, executive director of marketing for St. Francis, said nearly 100 people have downloaded the app.

Ascension Health developed similar functionality for its apps, including information on its facilities' services, providers and locations. Not surprisingly, this is the most viewed information on the facilities' websites too. Ascension Health conducted focus groups and worked with facility-level marketing and information technology contacts to determine which core functions would be most useful to smartphone users.

Ascension Health reports about 9,000 downloads of the apps so far. The system continually improves the apps with user feedback.

Triage for beginners, experts
The iTriage vendor-created app that Presence Saint Joseph rolled out in 2011 lets mobile device users look up medical symptoms, read about possible causes and then determine whether to make a doctor's appointment, or go to a clinic, an urgent care center or an emergency room. For instance, iTriage may show that a patient with a sprain should go to an urgent care facility, a service level Presence calls "immediate care," rather than to the emergency department. Ciccarelli said iTriage helps people "get to the appropriate place," and so ultimately may help reduce inappropriate use of the emergency department for nonemergency care.

SSM's MyChart app gives patients secure access to their own medical record, on their smartphone (they also can access MyChart on a computer). Patients use the app to check medical appointments, test results and a health summary that includes personal current medical concerns, medications, allergies and immunizations. Patients also can use the app to request prescription renewals and to communicate electronically with SSM clinicians using messages posted to their MyChart.

Vaughn said SSM tracks use of the app and has seen "impressive, sustained growth in patients creating accounts and routinely using the application."

In case of emergency
Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center has an app that allows patients to enter their medical information into their smartphones before an emergency occurs. Then, in an emergency situation, the patient or emergency responders can transmit that information directly to the emergency room by touching a button on the patient's smartphone (emergency responders have been trained to look for this button in an emergency). This way, emergency department clinicians learn salient details before a patient is triaged in the emergency room.

Mishawaka, Ind.-based Saint Joseph and Force 5, a South Bend, Ind., marketing company, created the app after getting input on desired functionality from emergency room physicians, emergency responders and clinical leaders. Working to incorporate feedback from all of these groups, it took about a year to develop ICE Michiana, according to Pamela Henderson, Saint Joseph vice president of marketing and public relations. ICE Michiana launched in August, and already more than 8,500 people have downloaded the app, according to Henderson.

Gregor Staniszewski, Saint Joseph director of emergency services, said sending information directly to the emergency department with this app allows emergency department clinicians to start treatment sooner; when basic information such as the patient's full name is preloaded into the app, it can streamline the patient registration process especially for those who are critically ill or injured.

Trinity Health's Saint Joseph permits other local hospitals to use the app. Force 5 said Saint Joseph plans to allow the use of the app by hospitals around the nation.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.