Mobile apps emerging as essential population health tools

Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine is cutting costs in a clinical trial that uses mHealth tools to teach patients cognitive behavioral therapy.
By Bill Siwicki
03:23 PM

While mobile apps are new enough on the care delivery scene that many providers have only begun dabbling, consumers are sending a strong message that forward-thinking hospital executives can translate into an opportunity for improving population health management programs.

Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine is conducting clinical trials that use mobile health apps to do much more than just communicate with patients — the software teaches mental health patients cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, techniques designed to improve population health and reduce mental healthcare costs.

This story is part of a reporting package on the rise of population in health in healthcare IT management. Stories include our analysis of health system strategies, an overview of the work done by Essentia Health and a look at how mobile apps are supporting initiatives.

Designed by Northwestern's Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, the ThinkFeelDo website (a responsive design site built to render effectively on any device) and the IntelliCare suite of mobile apps (available in the Google Play store for Android devices, with Apple iOS apps in the works) break up the various CBT techniques into separate modules to make learning the techniques and applying them in situations an easier task.

The modules include text, animation and video. Caregiver coaches, on the other end of the mobile site and apps, review patient progress and can intervene during lessons to help patients with any challenges or issues and to provide encouragement.

"Costs can be saved by giving depressed patients these kinds of tools, decreasing overall health care utilization for an individual," said Kenneth R. Weingardt, scientific director at the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies. Weingardt also is a licensed psychologist.

"We are now saving more money because the cost of the app is much lower than the cost of face-to-face. For some folks who are fairly well-functioning and can go it alone, these types of technology may provide them with what they need so they do not have a long depressive episode that impacts their health and costs a health plan money."

ThinkFeelDo and IntelliCare are still in clinical trials at Northwestern, though CBITs is in discussions with Kaiser about deploying IntelliCare through its patient portal.

"Mobile interventions have much farther reach than individual providers can have," Weingardt said. "They can reach many more people beyond those we can see in our clinic. And a health system that adopts these kinds of tools can improve their bandwidth and their ability to address these problems beyond the capacity of their workforce.”

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In the Northwestern’s clinical trials, Weingardt added, that means giving participants tools to get symptoms under control and making it less likely they will come back with complaints.

Providers such as Northwestern and other simply cannot ignore the trend toward mobile tools any longer, said population health management vendor Enli Health Intelligence chief medical officer Joseph Siemienczuk, MD.

"We have to follow the communication preferences of the community and and it is clear that their communication preferences have moved to mobile technology,” Siemienczuk said. "As we pursue effectiveness, moving patient engagement activities to mobile technology is an imperative."

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT

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