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Why Angry Birds Gets More Play Than Health Apps


I have been musing about why, despite our fascination with gadgets and timesaving devices, so few of us use the apps and tools that have been developed to help us take care of ourselves.

The range of options is staggering my iPhone coughed up 52 applications for medication reminders just now but most of us don't make use of the (often free) high-tech help available to us. There are hundreds of websites and portals to help us monitor our diets, physical activity and blood sugar, talk to our doctors by e-mail and understand our test results.  Apps can help us watch for drug interactions, unravel our test results, adjust our hearing aids and track our symptoms.  Devices can monitor whether our mom is moving around her house this morning or continuously monitor our vital signs.

Interesting ideas.  Modest pickup.

In an essay published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine supplement Cyberinfrastructure for Consumer Health, I make some observations about why this may be so, based on my experience as a person who daily responds to an exciting variety of chronic and acute conditions that ebb and flow in my body.'  My remarks are addressed to those who fund and develop devices and Web-based tools to help those of us with chronic conditions better care for ourselves.

Briefly, I encourage them to:

  • Recognize and aim their efforts toward technologies that help us fulfill the specific new responsibilities and tasks we find challenging in our efforts to live long and well with our conditions.
  • Hurry up with those interoperable electronic health records (EHRs)!  Until EHRs are up and running, we are the ones responsible for doing all the getting, sending and schlepping of our records.'  Often we don't realize this; sometimes we forget and make mistakes.
  • Test those apps out on us.  Ask us if the problem in question is one we care about.'  Check to see if the technology is easy enough to use so that it doesn't add to the burden of caring for ourselves and our loved ones.
  • And how about if those new devices and apps are tested out specifically on those of us who stand to gain the most from a low-cost technical fix ' those who are older and who have multiple chronic conditions, not Web-savvy people you have recruited online.

My essay concludes with:

I urge developers, funders, evaluators of health information technology (HIT), and health professionals all to remember the context into which new HIT approaches enter: Caring for one's chronic conditions is a tedious, uncomfortable lifelong job. Cool, cute and interesting programs and devices that help us monitor our blood pressure or remember to take our pills seem like they should break that tedium and attract our interest.

And indeed, many of us with chronic conditions are fun people. But keeping ourselves alive and out of pain is a serious business. We want to spend as little time as we possibly can occupied with the drudgery of caring for ourselves. If we are going to use a new website or device or program, we want it to be easy. We want it to save time, not take time. We do not want to have to learn a whole new technology on the off-chance it might help us out. And we do not want it to be fun. We want a technology that is efficient and useful'one that will help us take care of ourselves so that we can live lives that are fun.


More Blog Posts by Jessie Gruman

author bio

Jessie C. Gruman, PhD, was founder and president of the Center for Advancing Health from 1992 until her death in July 2014. Her experiences as a patient — having been diagnosed with five life-threatening illnesses — informed her perspective as an author, advocate and lead contributor to the Prepared Patient Blog. Her book, AfterShock, helps patients and caregivers navigate their way through the health care system following a serious or life-threatening diagnosis. The free app, AfterShock: Facing a Serious Diagnosis, offers a pocket guide based on the book. | More about Jessie Gruman

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Comments on this post
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Bergthold says
June 1, 2011 at 4:44 PM

I agree totally that we need more useable apps to help take care of ourselves. I disagree a bit about whether or not it has to be fun. To me, fun is being able to find out what I want and need quickly and efficiently. So I think these apps can be BOTH fun and effective.

I would love an app for caregivers that allows you to type in the kind of response a person with dementia makes, like "I want to go home" (when they obviously cannot go home) and then gives you a few possible answers for that right on the spot. My demented mother constantly baffles me with her responses and I too often try to "correct" her when I know that doesn't work. Anyone with a parent who has alzheimers or is demented confronts these dilemmas daily.

DougNaegele says
June 2, 2011 at 7:57 AM

Great points, Jesse.

I'd add that health apps lack engagement because the people who design them are not usually the demographic who uses them.

Take Angry Birds....AB was designed by gamers; people who play games all the time and appreciate how to grab and hold your attention. The designer has the same goal as the player - become immersed into a new and engaging game.

If the healthcare folks can bring the gamers on board at the design phase, they might be able to make mobile solutions that engage people like Angry Birds does.

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June 12, 2011 at 4:54 AM

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June 14, 2011 at 7:59 AM

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Grand Rounds Vol. 7 No. 38 | Health Blog says
June 14, 2011 at 8:24 AM

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MightyCasey says
June 16, 2011 at 12:17 PM

Fun is a bonus. Ease-of-use is the first priority. Health apps should be developed by gamers, but currently they're being built by the IT team equivalent of the elephant (a mouse designed by a govt committee). I have discussions almost daily with smart mobile developers who would LOVE to build an app for healthcare, but no one is buying. "Thanks, we'll build our own." #epicfail so far...