Health apps a boon for late-night browsers

When health insurer Medibank first launched its Symptom Checker app in May, the company was expecting it to be most popular with young mothers, the demographic most likely to be both comfortable using apps and most concerned about personal health, particularly when it comes to their children.

This expectation has certainly been borne out, with Medibank's figures showing most people who used the app during the daytime were searching for a specific key word. They were also more likely to be actually ill and were using the app for its intended purpose.

The other group of users has come as a bit of a surprise, however. Alex Young, Medibank's channel manager for mobile, digital sales and service, said the usage figures also showed a very active group of late-night browsers, people casually looking through lists of symptoms and clicking on topics of interest, perhaps for the purpose of self-education.

“Our assumption going into the market with Symptom Checker was that it would be the young mothers and that is represented by the usage,” Mr Young said. “But we are seeing two types of behaviours that are quite distinct. One is late-night browsing for self-education. One of the most active times is between 11 and 12 at night where people are browsing.

“Day-time browsers are actually day-time searchers who are searching for a specific key word and they are the ones who are more likely to be actually sick. The app is being used in a self-education way and in a true symptom checker capability, which is great to know. That sort of feedback through our stats gives us an understanding of what direction to take in the future of what people want and how we can improve it.”

Medibank says the Symptom Checker app has been one of the most downloaded apps in the medical category of the iTunes App Store in Australia since its national launch in May. While the company doesn't release actual usage rates, the app has been hovering in the top five list of downloads for several months now.

This is not surprising as it is a free app, but it has also been designed with a little more thought than many other offerings on the market. Just like the “Dr Google” trend of several years ago, there is a fear within the medical community that the proliferation of apps means some with very dubious value could gain currency.

Mr Young said the Symptom Checker app uses as its knowledge base the Schmitt-Thompson Clinical Content, which is used widely in North America and is the leading source of telephone triage protocols and decision support in the US. It is used by call centre nurses for after hours support as well as by general practices and clinics and it provides the information contained in the very popular US-content app SymptomMD, first launched in 2010.

A lot of US content isn't particularly useful in an Australian context so Medibank has spent a lot of time and effort tailoring it for the local healthcare system. One of the more interesting projects for Medibank's health solutions clinical group has been localising the content for our peculiar wildlife, especially our venomous or poisonous insects and reptiles.

“Localising means not just changing the language but also adapting for local drugs as well as local animals, insects and wildlife,” Mr Young said. “That is an interesting part of it – catering for our insects, jellyfish and spider bites.”

Users can either search or browse if they are concerned about a health issue, he said. If a parent notices a bite, they can type in “spider” and go from there, or if the parent doesn't know the child has been bitten but has a fever, they can browse through a list of symptoms.

“In terms of functionality the Symptom Checker has two purposes,” he said. “One is to help you determine how sick you or your child are and whether or not you need to call a doctor. It has that element of guiding you what steps to take next.

“Secondly, there is a self-treatment component to it so if you do want to treat yourself or your child there are some guidelines on how to do that. It's not there to fix all of your problems and I think that is an issue now in the marketplace. It is about how to determine what to do next, so the guidelines really are to help you to determine whether or not it is time to see a doctor or call triple-0 if it is an emergency.”

Symptom Checker is the second app Medibank has released, following its Energy Balancer nutrition app released last year. Energy Balancer is much more oriented at education rather than medical support, he said.

“The user can get a better understanding of the impact or work required to burn off a particular food or drink. We find that through our testing and through public use that it is a very social experience where you learn something and you want to tell someone about it because undoubtedly it is funny.

“You have the alcoholic component in it, which is always interesting, and we do have the appropriate measures so people are aware that it is something to be taken in moderation. But the activity side is where it gets really interesting. You have your standard running and swimming and then it starts to move into things like housework, playing games. We've had a lot of feedback from customers who are keen on seeing additional activities and food represented, but it has a fun element of realising exactly how much effort is required to burn off the food you eat.”

While that app can be quite a lot of fun, the Symptom Checker is geared to being used much more seriously, even taking into account the late-night browsers who might very well self-diagnose that slight headache as a terminal brain tumour, only to forget about it the next morning.

The apps are part of Medibank’s range of health support and advice services called Mi Health, which the company says showcases the latest innovations in telephonic and online health. Mi Health offers members access to the Health Hub, an online portal which provides health information and personalised wellness records.

Medibank is currently exploring the whole spectrum of developments in eHealth and mobility across a wide range of devices, Mr Young said. “There are opportunities in tablets and in medical devices that we are closely looking at.”

Posted in Australian eHealth

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