Major insurers embrace mobile health technology
mHealth may be making significant impacts in a number of areas, but outside of the largest health insurers in the country, it's not moving at light speed among payers.
That said, WellPoint, UnitedHealth, Aetna and Cigna are among the big hitters investing heavily in mobile health solutions, ranging from diabetes management and wellness tips to smartphone apps that will allow users to shop for doctors in their health insurance network or even provide turn-by-turn navigation for people needing to find the nearest emergency room.
In short, insurers are providing mHealth solutions in two distinct areas: Hands-on disease management and wellness and consumer-centric apps that are designed to help consumers make better decisions about choosing a provider.
“It’s clear that consumer empowerment through mHealth will be essential in the future,” said Ethan Slavin, a spokesperson with Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna. “Aetna’s vision is to empower consumers by putting their health in their own hands, resulting in healthcare delivery that is more convenient, connected and cost effective.”
That philosophy is evident in the company’s acquisition in late 2011 of mobile health start-up company Healthagen and its iTriage mobile app, which allows consumers to research symptoms, find an appropriate doctor and book an appointment on their mobile device. iTriage also allows Aetna members to research information on a provider’s cost and quality.
Other large insurers are making similar investments in mHealth and offering apps that help members find in-network providers. For instance, UnitedHealth Group earlier this year partnered with a number of mobile health tech firms to provide services that allow for disease and medication management and a mobile app that helps members manage their weight.
In addition to apps that help consumers take control of their health, there are a number of mHealth solutions aimed at actively managing costly health conditions, notably diabetes. Companies including Telcare, Sanofi Aventis and WellDoc offer a breadth of tools to allow patients to monitor diabetes using their mobile device.
While there is evidence these tools are effective in managing the disease, a research report from Cambridge, Mass.-based health policy institute NEHI indicates there is not yet ample evidence to show mobile applications help patients manage diabetes any better than existing programs. This lack of data is primarily due to the relative newness of such tools, but even if these programs are shown to be effective, other barriers exist to broader adoption.
“Widespread adoption is dependent on the reimbursement model,” the NEHI report stated. “If these new devices are not covered by insurance, its unlikely patients will purchase these technologies out-of-pocket, especially safety-net populations.”