Digital health engagement is a hot topic these days. It accounts for much of the gap between successful clinical trials and real-world adoption/results. And yet, because it’s complex—and because consumer engagement in healthcare is different than it is in other industries—it’s more talked about than understood.
There’s also a lot of “noise” in the rapidly-burgeoning digital health space, which means there are too many point solutions that cannot be successful in the long run because they’re either too narrowly focused in the broader healthcare continuum, or they don’t have the requisite product or expertise to generate sustained engagement. Providers are trying to help patients. Patients want to feel better. Behind both is a technological mashup across disparate systems and stakeholders.
So when you’re investing in or building your own digital health solutions, how do you gauge a particular tool’s ability to engage consumers? How do you make tools that are appealing—or even indispensable—to the people you want to use them?
1. Design for human interaction
Digital health consumers are human, and humans need love, encouragement, and validation. We also crave interaction. Whether it comes in the form of general “health and wellness” coaching—covering education, exercise, nutrition, lifestyle factors, and the like—or focuses on managing a specific condition or set of comorbidities, we give credence to “expert” opinions, particularly when served with relevant data on the side.
Yet the average physician spends only a few minutes a year with their patients. Sound familiar? Phenomena like this were some of the original, primary market drivers of the digital health industry. The ultimate goal is still to automate these kinds of interactions. But that only works if we remember the interaction part, not just the automation.
2. Give real-time feedback
It’s no secret how much health-related data is being collected these days by devices, trackers, phones, clicks, keystrokes, EHRs, and so on. But this data is rarely used to provide timely, tangible, or ongoing benefits to consumers. And yet the most useful information is the kind that’s delivered at the right time and place—that supports, scolds, alerts, and reminds in a fashion that matches our personality type and lifestyle factors, and that arrives in an accurate, timely, and contextual way.
What’s at stake with real-time feedback? A share of consumers’ (very short) attention! Your digital health solution is competing directly against each and every exigency of people’s personal circumstances, i.e., everything that makes up their waking moments, along with all the choices they make to engage in a specific activity or not. So, the more timely, relevant, and useful your feedback is, the more likely it is to hold the engagement of your end users. Why? Because they believe that they are deriving something of value from using whatever it is you’re providing to them.
That means you have to truly know your customers in order to even have a chance of being successful. What are their daily lives like, and what are their competing priorities? If you want to maximize your chances of success, maximize the consumer’s.
3. Personalize in meaningful ways
You want to really make your solution sticky? Personalize it. How? By making people believe that when you ask them to input information, it will come back to them in a valuable, relevant, and personally meaningful way… and then proving it, time and again.
In other words, turn the knowledge you have about my life, my activity, my diet, and my health status into context-aware suggestions, education, reminders, alerts and maybe even a little encouragement or humor. Become my go-to source when it comes to my health and well-being. Let me decide how and when I want to engage with your solution, but prevent those dreaded gaps in care on the back-end, behind the scenes. Enable me to change settings to suit my unique needs.
Personalization is, in my view, one of the least developed but highest potential components of engaging digital health solutions.
4. Get smart about marketing
The digital health industry, like healthcare overall, is in dire need of more sophisticated marketing and advertising. “Health and wellness” promotions—with the exception of a few weight loss products—are even worse in terms of ROI.
This is a huge missed opportunity, because it means companies are missing the chance to make an emotional connection with the consumer, particularly at those critical times when he or she is a patient. We need to provide more education and data. We need to get to a place where the decision to purchase or engage is seamlessly aligned with a very clearly articulated and well-understood value proposition, along with measurable benefits. What can customers expect when they engage with your product? What will it help them attain or achieve?
I wish I could point to a specific solution or company that’s doing this well, but I’ve been part of too many digital health programs where the participants—providers, consumers, and even the implementation team—had no clear idea “why” or “what” it was they were being asked to do. And that falls at the feet of the marketing function.
5. Educate, educate, educate
Education underscores all the other components of successful digital health engagement. Unfortunately, consumer healthcare literacy is outrageously poor in the U.S., with only 12 percent of U.S. adults testing as proficient.
This knowledge gap makes everything we do in digital health—from sales cycles to outcomes—take longer and cost more. There’s no one-size solution for this problem, but we have to start somewhere. It’s not enough to build solutions that make an impact. We’ve also got to educate critical stakeholders across the spectrum of payers, providers, employers, and, most importantly, consumers, on both the product and corporate levels.
Rinse and repeat
Every digital health solution asks people to do something on a recurring basis, whether it’s clicking, sharing, reading, moving, exercising, dieting, monitoring, logging, making (better) informed decisions about their health, and feeling more empowered—and less fearful—about those decisions. And feeling and being healthier! Ideally, in an as automated and seamless a fashion as possible. That’s a tall order, but focusing on digital health engagement (in the real world, not the lab) is a good first step towards filling it.
This piece first appeared on LinkedIn.
Karl Hess is a healthcare executive and consultant with more than 20 years of product, market, and corporate development experience across medical devices, biotech, pharma, and digital health.