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Survey: Consumer mHealth Use is Growing, But Literacy is Lacking

A UnitedHealthcare survey finds more consumers are turning to mHealth apps and online sites to shop for and research healthcare services, but they may not understand what they're looking for.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Americans are turning to mHealth apps and online websites to shop for healthcare services and do their healthcare research, according to a new survey from UnitedHealthcare.

The same survey found an alarmingly low percentage of consumers who understand four basic health insurance terms, further emphasizing the need for providers and payers to make sure their mobile health platforms aren’t confusing.

The 2017 Consumer Sentiment Survey, released this month, found that roughly one in three consumers now uses an app or their home PC to comparison shop for healthcare services, more than two times the rate reported in 2012 (14 percent). Of that group, 80 percent rated the experience very or somewhat helpful.

In addition, 28 percent of those surveyed turn to mHealth or the PC first for healthcare research, a 3 percent increase since last year. The only resource more often consulted is a primary care physician or nurse, at 45 percent – but that number has dropped 3 percent since last year.

The numbers point to an American public becoming more comfortable accessing healthcare online and on the go (especially younger Americans – 36 percent of Millennials now use mobile apps as their first source of health information, and 44 percent are shopping for healthcare online). With those numbers expected to continue rising, analysts say, providers have to adopt a mobile-friendly strategy to keep their patients and attract new ones.

READ MORE: Leveraging Primary Care Telehealth for Convenience and Quality

It’s not a new problem. Two years ago, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) found in its 2015 HIMSS Mobile Technology Survey that nearly 90 percent of healthcare organizations were adopting mobile and telehealth tools for patient engagement, yet only half were able to leverage the technology to impact patient care in a meaningful way.

While researching and shopping for healthcare services, Americans are also becoming more comfortable accessing healthcare online – though far more slowly than they are with mobile devices.

According to the survey, 42 percent of Americans said they would likely use telemedicine in the future, while 46 percent said it was unlikely they would try out the technology. Just last year, 51 percent said they wouldn’t use telemedicine while 37 percent said they would, so 5 percent have shifted toward online healthcare in one year.

While Americans are starting to embrace mHealth and telemedicine, they aren’t necessarily taking the time to understand how it might affect their wallet.

According to the survey, only 9 percent of Americans understood four basic health insurance terms – health plan premium, health plan deductible, out-of-pocket maximum and co-insurance. While that number marks a small increase from last year’s 7 percent, it indicates that consumers are generally more interested in access and convenience than cost.

READ MORE: The Evolving Role of mHealth in Medication Management and Adherence

That point is also made when survey respondents were asked to estimate the cost of two common surgical procedures: a knee MRI and a knee replacement. Only 4 percent correctly noted that an MRI would cost $900, while 10 percent correctly said replacement surgery would run to about $36,000.

Most of those surveyed underestimated how much the procedures would cost – 39 percent said an MRI would cost between $400 and $800, while 15 percent said replacement surgery would cost just $5,000, 26 percent said it would cost $15,000 and $22,000 said it would cost $25,000.

This could be an important factor in driving mHealth and telehealth adoption. A 2016 HealthMine survey found that almost 40 percent of respondents didn’t know what telemedicine is, yet 93 percent of those who have used the technology say it has lowered their healthcare costs.

“At some point we have to get excited enough to be forceful enough to demand it,” said Timothy Smith, a principal at Deloitte Consulting’s Life Sciences and Healthcare section and national leader for the company’s healthcare IT practice.

They may also be underestimating how their lifestyle affects their health.

READ MORE: The Benefits and Challenges of Telehealth for Specialists

Less than a quarter of those surveyed correctly answered that 80 percent or more of premature chronic conditions – such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke – are caused by modifiable lifestyle choices like smoking, diet and exercise.

The survey, undertaken in August of some 1,000 Americans, suggests the typical American consumer is becoming comfortable with mobile devices and online access, and that they’re slowly coming to terms with telemedicine.

It also points out that healthcare providers and payers aren’t taking advantage of this medium to educate consumers, or that their mobile and online strategies aren’t catching on.

Roughly a year ago, Xerox released a survey which found that providers and their patients often aren’t on the same page when discussing healthcare.

According to that survey, nearly half of American consumers said they take complete responsibility for their health – yet only 6 percent of doctors in that survey said that’s true. Some 40 percent of doctors and payers, in fact, said patients don’t know to take charge of their healthcare, while less than 5 percent of patients said that’s accurate.

“Consumers and healthcare professionals have very different views on patient empowerment and control,” Rohan Kulkarni, vice president of strategy and portfolio for the Xerox Business Group, said in remarks accompanying the survey. “Payers and providers are much less likely to believe patients are taking responsibility for their health than what patients perceive to be true. The results suggest that improved communication could allow healthcare professionals to better showcase to their patients how they’re a partner in their health.”

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