mHealth Monthly Mashup: Release 14.0 – Mobile health road map: proven best practices for success

Michael Spitz


Michael Spitz of Zemoga continues his mHealth Monthly Mashup series with a step-by-step guide for mobile health success.

Last month we took an “mhealth reality check” and concluded that despite the apparent confusion and contradiction surrounding uptake and adoption, healthcare audiences have embraced mobile health to an extent warranting the term “game changer.”

But skeptics have a valid point in the sense that actual engagement, let alone behavioral change, remains statistically low. Return on investment is also nebulous at best, as few are able to quantify or even justify expensive forays into the mhealth space.

So all hope and hype aside, what does it take to design, develop, and deploy a mobile health experience that actually gets the job done? Instead of simply asking, let’s start answering with the following step-by-step roadmap that could pave the way.


“What does it take to design, develop, and deploy a mobile health experience that actually gets the job done?”


Step 0: Forget about mobile health

Before you even start, stop thinking about mhealth. Seriously. Forget about apps, smartphones, tablets, iTunes, Angry Birds, Happtique, the whole enchilada. The biggest mistake in communications and tech is to leap on a solution before understanding the need.

What’s crucial to acknowledge is that mobile health is merely a tactical recommendation, one channel of many available. You have numerous options, mhealth being just one of them. And at this point, you don’t have enough data to determine if you even want to or should go there.

That’s why it’s important to first understand yourself, your goals, motivation, and capabilities, your audiences and how they use technology, your message and content, and the level of risk acceptable to you. Apps gets built from the outside, in, here’s a way.


“The biggest mistake in communications and tech is to leap on a solution before understanding the need.”


Step 1: Know thyself and never forget the patient

The centerpiece of Greek philosophy is also the prerequisite for digital implementation, especially when considering emerging tech like mobile health. Not kidding: Whether or not your foray into mhealth succeeds is contingent on asking yourself why you’re even trying.

Who are you? Entrepreneur, pharma e-marketer, clinician, or patient advocate? What is your specific goal? Profit, sales, data, or support? Where are your resources? Internal, external, vendor-driven, or academic? When can you start? How extensive is your experience?

Regardless how these personal questions are answered, your overall digital health objective will remain the same: To induce behavioral change in users that engenders positive patient outcomes. Directly or indirectly, in healthcare the patient is your ultimate beneficiary.

That being the case, a mobile health solution might not even make sense. Of the tens of thousands of #healthapps currently available, most are redundant and few genuinely effective. Let’s determine relevance and feasibility, and only then engineer a solution.

Step 2: Know thy audience and remember your stakeholders

Let’s say you’re a pharma e-marketer tasked with the education and empowerment of targets with Drug X data. Whether your audience includes healthcare professionals, patients, caregivers, these segments or others, you must know their distinctive needs and behaviors.

Physicians and specialists, for example, require clinical data such as efficacy, tolerability, administration, side effects and the like to help choose the right treatment option for the right patient, patients, in contrast, may need more info about disease state and support.

A pharma e-marketer must also know how respective segments engage with digital. Sources like Forrester and ComScore reveal touch points. This research helps to put together the optimal “media mix” for Drug X that might – or might not – include a mobile component.

Perhaps equally important are your internal audiences, the stakeholders, decision makers, and influencers within your organization. Getting their buy-in and incorporating their feedback is instrumental to every initiative, especially an edgier one like mobile health.

Step 3: To go mobile or not to go mobile, that is the question

Notice that only after all this soul-searching and due diligence are we finally ready to determine whether or not an mhealth solution is even viable for our goals, audience types, content, and overall intent. Every situation is unique, but this decision comes last, not first.

If the mobile route is actually determined to be appropriate, we’re still not ready to roll. Additional variables also must be weighed, including available budget and resources, estimated timing, and willingness of the organization to take on some risk.

Risk here comes in a few forms: First, return on investment may remain, despite our best efforts, ambiguous and possibly negative. Secondly, mobile is so nascent that pursuing the channel might stretch your organization in terms of capabilities, patience, and bandwidth.

So if at long last, after all these prerequisites have been thought through and checked off, and the decision to proceed with an mhealth solution is made, what next? Now that we can actually get started, how do we help ensure a successful, relatively hassle-free outcome?

Step 4: Begin with the experience in mind

Just as we stopped before we started, now we should end before we begin: Put all technical concerns and considerations aside, shelve every contingency, and imagine what an ideal mobile experience could and should be like for the end user we’ve already come to know.

Every app and mobile-optimized website is different, but the better ones obey established best practices in terms of “user interface” (UI – nuts and bolts of navigation and structure) and “user experience” (UX – holistic effect of all components, including UI, content, visuals).

Your “dream mobile experience” should be the optimal composite between proven design methodology and your own goals, audience, content, and engagement. You want mobile simple and standard enough for all to embrace, but specific enough to meet unique needs.

The result should be a vision with high-level visualizations of what this idealized mobile health experience could be like. With these guiding the project, your teams have what they need to start asking the hard questions, tied back to your resourcing and budget.


“You want mobile simple and standard enough for all to embrace, but specific enough to meet unique needs.”


Step 5: “Git ‘er done!”

The Devil, as they say, is always in the details, nowhere more so than in digital implementation. Not only is the playing field constantly shifting out from under us, iOS to Android to Blackberry to Windows, but the devices themselves are in complete flux.

So an initial key decision is choosing the operating system, dependent again on your goals, audience type, content, etc. But certain generalizations act as guides, such as the iPad currently dominating tablets, and Blackberry, for example, falling to the wayside.

The next decision is device, progressively made all the more complicated because Android systems come in all shapes and sizes, while even the iPad is rumored to be eminently morphing into variants. Mobile websites and apps don’t always scale, so developer beware.

And far as the actual development process goes, much depends on who does the building for you, and how. Important to keep in mind is the need for ongoing strategic involvement and feedback, remember your starting vision, and do your best to keep the train on the tracks.


“The Devil, as they say, is always in the details, nowhere more so than in digital implementation.”


Step 6: Cross your i’s and dot your t’s with compliance

As we know the healthcare space has its indigenous sensitivities, most content delicate, proprietary, often highly private. The space is also heavily regulated, whether the content is branded pharma information, personal patient information, disease state data, or similar.

Being not only mindful but explicitly compliant is therefore not an option but a necessity. Websites and social networks are already fraught with these challenges, and mobile, as a portable extension and integration of both, simply compounds these hotspots.

Experience in pharma and medical device has proven, time and time again, that bringing in the legal and regulatory team as early into the process as possible is most expeditious. Getting their buy-in and consent initially often mitigates bigger problems later.

The US government is the throes of regulating certain kinds of mobile health apps, stay in the know. And for those mhealth projects that steer well clear of these immediate concerns, be mindful that healthcare audiences have different sensitivities and needs than consumers.

Step 7: mhealth as one component of an integrated effort

Perhaps the most important – and most often overlooked – aspect of a successful mhealth initiative is the realization that the end-goal is behavioral modification: The whole initiative is designed to get a healthcare professional, patient, caregiver, clinician to do something.

In contrast, the mobile website or app we’re developing is ultimately just a bunch of digital code. Too often these bundles of software are simply tossed over the fence and out into the world, the builders somehow expecting stickiness and engagement to simply happen.

Without creating a multichannel, full 360-degree, sustainable and emotionally engaging holistic experience, our efforts are doomed to fail. We could build the world’s most astonishing mobile app, but without a human continuum around it, the experience won’t fly.

The “trick to stick” is embedding the mobile website or app within a robust CRM program: Repeating and compelling digital touchpoints on the one hand, and personal, human educational and empowerment components on the other. To make it happen, make it real.


“We could build the world’s most astonishing mobile app, but without a human continuum around it, the experience won’t fly.”



Mobile health can be improved, these few, broadly described steps might provide a bit of clarity. Understanding oneself, goals, audience, content, and tech is important – but enmeshing your mhealth project within a broader human support network is vital.




About the author:

Michael Spitz is SVP, Managing Director of the Healthcare and LifeSciences division of ZEMOGA. Spitz combines his passion for technology with more than 15 years of clinical content expertise to help engineer digital healthcare solutions. Follow @SpitzStrategy on Twitter for his daily – often hourly – updates on all things digital for the ultimate benefit of patients worldwide.

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