Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Smartphone Apps: Architecture Trumps Content

According to this The Wall Street Journal article, the prospect that "your doctor may soon prescribe you a smartphone app," has put us on the cusp of a new age of m-healthiness. 
Regular Population Health Blog readers are not surprised. They have an "over-the-horizon" awareness of health information technology and know that the health app ecosystem has been flourishing for quite some time
What is surprising, however, is how the news article from a prestigious news organization conflated architecture and content
The PHB explains.
The WSJ article describes how intrepid e-researchers from marquee academic institutions are documenting the impact of apps on medication compliance, symptom management, risk reduction and provider-patient communication. Once users open these apps, there's not only an eHealth technology platform but an accompanying library of tailored e-prompts, e-reminders, e-pop-ups, e-recommendations, e-messaging, e-images and e-videos.  Mix one app with one patient and quality goes up and costs go down.
Unfortunately, what the article failed to mention is that much of that content made up of information that is freely available in the public domain, and that these app developers have reconfigured and adapted it according to the interests, expertise and culture of their sponsoring institutions.
While policymakers and researchers would like to believe that on-line and public domain health information is a commodity, the fact is that buyer, purchaser and provider organizations have been accessing and downloading it for years.  They've take special pride of ownership in the wording, editing, formatting, presentation of that content.  That's what makes it "theirs" for both their providers and their patients.  After all, all healthcare is local.
This has important implications for the smartphone app indsutry.  While the academic e-researchers and business e-developers dream of having their apps adopted by delivery systems everywhere, the problem is that their apps are often tethered to their own organizations' content
In other words, you can have any breast cancer, heart failure or post-hospital discharge smartphone-based solution that you want, just so long as you also import their prompts, reminders, pop-ups, recommendations, messages, images and videos. 
The Population Health Blog believes the secret sauce for competitive success for app developers is accordingly three-fold:
1) Architecture Trumps Content: Smart app developers understand that the value proposition of the underlying technology architecture is separate from the value proposition of the content.  The app itself needs to be independently stable, secure and snappy with minimal branching logic, an easy-to-use interface and freedom from annoying bugs, whether it's heart failure in for a hundred patients in Halifax or a dozen persons with diabetes in Des Moines. 
2) Architecture Supports Content: Very smart app developers also understand that the architecture should be able to accommodate any content that is preferred by their customers. If ABC Regional Health System wants their in-house policies, procedures, pamphlets, web-pages, in-house guidelines and electronic record prompts to be reflected in a smartphone app, then the app's framework should be able to import it.  Think plug and play.
3) Architecture Has Content: That being said, not every buyer, purchaser or provider will have all the content needed to manage a target population. That means app developers will need to have generic content ready to go to fill in the gaps
The business case for apps may be similar to selling a house.  First off, make sure the foundation is solid and the roof is intact.  Be prepared to move walls and windows, if that's what the buyer wants.  And, if the house needs to be furnished with some furniture, do it; if the buyer wants some or all of their furniture to furnish the house, do it.

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