Health insurance companies are turning to social media, health gaming apps, and other mobile health apps to increase patient engagement in their own health care, according to a new report from Chilmark Research. However, this is still a very new phenomenon, and most payers are still sitting on the sidelines, the report said.

“Despite the over 40 consumer technology-enabled member engagement strategies profiled in this report, the industry is still very much in the early-innovator adoption stage,” said John Moore, founder and CEO of Chilmark, in a press release.

In a blog post written in June, Moore pointed out that payers have been experimenting with these technologies since 2008. That’s when Kaiser Permanente and Humana started creating online health games for children. “In 2010, UHG [UnitedHealth Group] released the first version of the OptumizeMe social game app, Anthem released its Grocery Guide app… and Aetna partnered with to provide a social network for members in recovery.”

Today, he said, a total of 15 social games are available from United, Aetna, Humana, Cigna, Highmark, Kaiser Permanente, Blue Shield of California, and Independence Blue Cross.

Moore also cited 10 non-social, non-gamified initiatives, many focused on chronic diseases, and seven social-only initiatives, keyed mainly to exercise and diet. Examples include health plan partnerships with Healthrageous and Welldoc, and Aetna’s coverage of Mindbloom’s Life Game. The New York Times recently reported that two unnamed health plans will pay more than $100 per patient per month for Welldoc’s FDA-approved Diabetes Manager, which has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes. The two plans will reportedly begin covering the use of the smartphone app and its related coaching service in January.

Blue Shield of California, meanwhile, has started offering its members the Healthrageous wellness app, which gets patients involved in preventive and chronic care. Based on personal health data collected via mobile devices, Healthrageous advises users on how to meet their health goals.

Blue Shield of California also has programs that use the Shape Up Shield app, which focuses on increasing physical activity, and the Daily Challenge from MeYouHealth, which gets users to meet physical, emotional, or mental challenges. Both apps involve social media and gaming.

According to an e-book from FierceHealthPayer, Kaiser Permanente and some other payers have created their own mobile apps. Among Kaiser’s mHealth offerings are Mix It Up, an online nutrition program; Thrive Across America, a physical activity program; Everybody Walk!, a personalized walking program; and KP Preventive Care, an app offering personalized health reminders.

In his blog post and press release, Moore emphasized that health plans are being forced to become more proactive in engaging patients because of societal pressures to reduce health costs. In addition, payers’ use of social and mobile technologies extends their longstanding interest in promoting wellness and good health behavior and encouraging members to fill care gaps.

In an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare, Moore noted that these activities have been “going on for a long time with varying degrees of success. Health plan members haven’t necessarily trusted payers enough to share information with them. And many of the payer solutions have been half-baked or rudimentary. What they’re trying to do now is leverage these consumer technologies to meet consumers where they already are–using the social media, leveraging gaming applications, and providing mobile apps that are specific to a given patient.”

Moore noted that the early adopters like UnitedHealth Group, Aetna, Kaiser Permanente, and a few Blues plans are still driving the market but haven’t gotten as far as he’d expected. Most insurers involved in this area are still in the early stages of their initiatives, conducting pilots that were launched six to 18 months ago. One reason is that when they tried these technologies earlier and members didn’t flock to their mobile or social media offerings, some plans simply gave up.

But now, Moore said, “The payers realize they need to rethink this as they move into new modes of reimbursement. So they’re trying to figure out what works.”

InformationWeek Health Care
August 23, 2012