Given the high penetration of mobile device ownership,1 it’s not surprising that mobile health (mHealth) products are flooding the market.2 These cutting-edge solutions allow health professionals to connect to electronic health records, access training and education materials, send reminders to patients, and more. These tools also empower patients and consumers, for example, to track and report biometric data, receive wellness tips, and build online communities.
If mHealth is revolutionizing public health practice, then every health professional should develop a mobile app, right?
Not quite. This question arose during the Symposium on mHealth hosted by The George Washington University mHealth Collaborative and ICF International. The event highlighted mHealth innovations that integrate into health systems, mitigate cybersecurity risks, and motivate health behavior change. Throughout the presentations, speakers offered insight into determining when mHealth provides the appropriate solution to a public health problem. Based on these discussions, here are questions to ask yourself before building your own mHealth app:
Does a similar tool already exist?
Before greenlighting your project, conduct a landscape analysis of current mHealth products that address your specific public health issue or reach your target audience. If no comparable offering exists, then move forward with the design and planning process. However, if you discover a similar mHealth solution, then redirect your strategy before you waste time, money, and energy duplicating existing tools.
Does anyone need your tool?
A lack of mHealth products that resemble your proposed idea doesn’t indicate a need to build it. The demand must be driven by the end user. Listen to your patients and clients. Talk to your colleagues. Monitor conversations in the media and online. Take note of frequently repeated needs, obstacles, priorities, constraints, and concerns. This exercise will help you create a valuable tool that precisely addresses a given public health problem.
Does your target audience use mobile technology?
Gain insight into the psychosocial and technological characteristics of your core demographic through focus groups, in-depth interviews, surveys, or ethnographies. Research their underlying behaviors, motivations, attitudes, and beliefs, and ask about their technology adoption and usage habits. Be sure to examine potential barriers to mobile access, such as poor Wi-Fi connectivity, low cellular data, and lack of unlimited SMS texts. These key findings will help you achieve an evidence-based approach that is tailored to the exact needs of your end user.
Can you assemble a multidisciplinary team?
Although mHealth is powered by technology, you need a diverse team of professionals with assorted skill sets to manage the design, implementation, and evaluation processes effectively. Depending on the scope of work, your project may require public health practitioners, developers, health care providers, engineers, researchers, communicators, data analysts, creatives, and more. Not only do specialists bring their own expertise to the project, but they also can offer unique perspectives for solving problems and unlocking innovations.
Can you set measurable goals?
At the end of your pilot study, you’ll need to know what worked, what didn’t work, and why. To answer these questions, set SMART goals—goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely—and integrate them into the development of your mHealth solution. This will help you identify key performance indicators to analyze when you test your new tool. If your pilot study flops, initiate a feedback loop that allows participants to offer input that will be incorporated into the final product.
With concrete answers to these questions, you should be able to develop the right mHealth innovation for a defined target audience with a distinct public health issue. At IQ Solutions, we walk clients through this decision-making process before our multidisciplinary team begins designing, developing, and implementing new mHealth products. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) tasked us with building a mobile learning tool that fulfills healthcare providers’ need to quickly and easily access resources on suicide risk assessment. Check out the case study on Suicide Safe to see how we began the development process by conducting a needs assessment and formative research with end users in order to produce a robust mHealth app that empowers providers with knowledge, skills, and critical resources needed to save lives.