Smartphone apps: Are insurers harnessing their potential?

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When I read recently that Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina launched an iPhone app that provides users with information for making informed healthcare decisions, I started wondering whether healthcare insurers overall are taking advantage of the ever-growing smartphone market and harnessing it to their benefit.

"Apps like ours come at a critical time," Michelle Douglas, communications specialist for BCBSNC, told me. They tap consumers' growing awareness of increasing medical costs and provide them with information they need to take the next step--changing their behavior--to help defray some costs.

If more insurers released similar smartphone apps, and assuming consumers use them, the industry could reap the reward. "The benefit to insurers is two-fold: First, this information helps build an awareness and understanding of the factors that drive medical costs. Second, when consumers have easy access to this information, they are able to choose lower cost care options when appropriate," Douglas said. "Both of these outcomes support the industry's goal of reducing overall medical spending."

The BCBSNC free iPhone app, called HealthNAV, provides an urgent care finder, a prescription drug finder, customer service access, and a health notes section. "When our customers choose an urgent care center instead of the ER for a non-life-threatening emergency, or opt for a generic drug over a brand name, it saves them money out of pocket and also helps rein in overall medical costs--which drive premiums," noted Douglas.

When considering new smartphone apps, insurers should provide only the most relevant information, according to Julie Kling, Humana's mobile executive business lead. For example, customers wanted Humana's iPhone application to offer member identification card information as the first option, so the program reflects that request.

Aetna consumer research found the most appealing health-related mobile applications help users save money and easily access health information. Consumers particularly favor resources that offer personalization and convenience, including online provider directories, pricing tools and personal health records. Accordingly, Aetna soon will launch Blackberry and iPhone apps that allow customers to use GPS to locate nearby physicians, receive turn-by-turn directions to the offices and download physicians' contact info into the phone's address book. Additionally, its iPhone app will allow customers to show their physician an electronic ID card.

UnitedHealth's smartphone apps use a phone's GPS function to locate a nearby doctor; another app uses GPS to map a recreational walking route and allows the user to challenge their friends to walk. In the future, apps could inform insurers that a patient was at a doctor's office so they could electronically submit appropriate medical information to the physician.

Highmark provides a free iPhone application that allows users to quickly find nearby participating hospitals, urgent care facilities, retail clinics and pharmacies. The app also provides interactive health information about illnesses, symptoms, and medical conditions as well as health coaching tips and information about Highmark programs.

"Smartphones are certainly 'where it's at' for today," Douglas told me. Although it's difficult to predict how technology will evolve, she said successful businesses will effectively leverage technology to simplify business. "That will continue to be our goal."

Based on consumer reception of BCBSNC's iPhone app--over 1,200 downloads, 1,700 searches for urgent care centers and over 950 searches for prescription drugs in just one week--smartphone apps might not just be here today, but could be the way of the future. - Dina