There’s Not Always an App for That: Why Benefits Leaders Shouldn’t Rely on Health Apps

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Internal Communications Systems

By Lara Dodo, Chief Growth and Operating Officer, Newtopia

Whether we’re booking a hotel room, checking our bank balance or looking up driving directions, apps have become a familiar part of our daily activities, speeding up mundane tasks and making us more efficient and productive. They’ve made steady inroads into virtually every aspect of our lives, including health and wellness.

According to the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science, more than 90,000 new consumer health apps were released in 2020, bringing the total number of available apps to more than 350,000. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated health app adoption, leading to a boom in downloads. Data from app evaluator ORCHA indicates that downloads of mental health apps increased by nearly 200% from summer 2019 to summer 2020, diabetes-management apps rose by 482%, and diet and weight-loss apps by 1,294%. People are looking to take a more active role in their health and are turning to digital technologies both to support well-being and to help with disease management. 

Employers and health plan payers, facing soaring medical costs, have also embraced apps as an inexpensive way to keep their employees and members healthy — and with the hope that they’ll slow the progression of costly chronic diseases influenced by unhealthy lifestyles. There’s no question that this approach is compelling given the small investment required. While health apps certainly appear like a good way to promote lifestyle change, many benefits leaders are finding that more is required to achieve measurable and sustained improvement.

App download figures may reveal initial enthusiasm, but they don’t tell us how many people are engaging with them regularly or how well they work. According to Ian Duncan of Santa Barbara Actuaries, the average number of downloads for a health app is 10,000. But only 30% of the people who download an app actually open it, and only 10% of those individuals are still using it after 30 days. That means only about 3% of those who have access to an app are still using it after a month. What does that mean for engagement beyond 90 days, let alone the longer time frames needed to generate a real impact. 

A price point of $5 per employee per year sounds compelling, but if 3% of your employees are actually using the app, the amount you’re paying comes out to $167 per user. And what is the cost-effectiveness of that investment when you take selection bias into account? Are these 3% the same people who would be engaging in healthy behaviors without the app, or are you reaching new people and helping them change their behavior? 

Ultimately, offering an app to your employees and hoping they use it isn’t going to be an effective strategy if you want real results. One of the few randomized controlled studies of employer well-being programs, as reported in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggests that a reliance on education and self-motivation alone is not enough to effect change. Intensive one-on-one coaching is needed to turn information into action — and then make those habits stick so that you can achieve measurable positive clinical and financial benefits.

There’s no denying that behavior change is hard, and while apps and other digital technologies can absolutely play an important role, a nudge on an app by itself usually isn’t enough. As detailed in a recent piece for The Actuary, a hybrid approach that includes the personal touch of individualized coaching by habit change experts is much more effective, especially if it’s part of an integrated program that addresses whole-person health. 

When it comes to the intensely personal (and psychological) process of changing habits, it’s extremely important to take individual preferences into account. Making “self-service” content available 24/7 via an app is undeniably convenient and helpful to many people, but human nature being what it is, not everyone enjoys or will engage with technology in the same way.  Most of us need a balance between high tech and high touch; human intervention through one-on-one virtual coaching powered by technology. 

When we look at participants in Newtopia’s habit change experience, our overall 12-month engagement rate is 76%, and from user feedback we know that the top factor (cited by 84%) driving that durability in engagement is the one-on-one coaching by habit change experts called Inspirators. Participants have a relationship and a connection with someone they feel accountable to — someone who knows their story and cares about them as a person. Acknowledging that you’re going to have to talk to a real person next week about what you’ve committed to do is completely different from just inputting data into an app. A prompt simply won’t hold you accountable in the same way, or provide encouragement when you inevitably encounter challenges.

We all love apps. They’re convenient, intuitive and always at hand. But when it comes to properly addressing the conditions that lead to chronic disease, health and well-being apps won’t get the job done. We’re human, and a human connection is what’s needed to drive healthy habit change.

About Lara Dodo

Lara is a dynamic leader who believes in the strength of team, the power of authentic communication, and the impact of positive energy on innovation. As chief growth and operating officer at Newtopia, she leads the company in expanding market share, creating products, services, and experiences that delight clients and drive results. Over the past 20 years, Lara’s core value has been community leadership, speaking on topics such as women in leadership, technology, career navigation and personal development. Lara is a proven entrepreneurial leader across multi-industries. Lara earned a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of South Africa.