American Medical News
June 13, 2011
Apps let patients view insurance on smartphones
Health plans hope access will better connect members, doctors and insurers and reduce costs. Apps for physicians are coming.
By Emily Berry
Health insurers are hitching a ride into the physician office -- and the exam room -- on patients' smartphones.
Some of the largest health plans have developed mobile apps that will give a member access to information from his or her insurer, including drug prices and a network directory. Coming soon will be apps aimed at physicians themselves.
Health plans see mobile technology as a convenient customer service portal, a cost-cutting tool and a way to break down the traditional barriers between physician, patient and health plan. Humana's myHumana app identifies out-of-pocket drug costs for a given prescription, available to a member from his or her smartphone. Health Net's mobile app lists claims history. Several apps can display health savings account balances.
"In an ideal world, the member/patient experience would be completely integrated, with no difference between provider practice and health insurance company, unless they were important to the experience. We would function as one entity," said Mark Brooks, chief technology officer for Health Net. "We value and appreciate the physicians' expertise in those situations, but it really is about how we can create a partnership as much as we possibly can."
Health Net is one of the large health insurers, including UnitedHealthcare and Humana, that have in the past year introduced mobile apps that made it possible to access a virtual ID card, search the plan's physician directory, and in some cases check coverage details or compare prescription drug costs at nearby pharmacies.
81% of physicians use a smartphone.
"The feedback we're getting from physicians is, 'Keep going,' " Brooks said.
Through its app, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida offers its members access to basically any online tool they might need, wrapped into its mobile app, including the ability to buy coverage. Adriana Murillo, the company's director for strategic development, said the company wants to get beyond the administrative tools and help connect doctors and patients, facilitating the flow of information between them.
She said its mobile offerings might someday include something like Bluetooth technology that collects blood glucose level readings and sends them directly to a member's physician.
"All those tools, we are envisioning that as part of a mobile effort that includes not just us, but the member and provider, and we become like the hub, connecting them all, making sure that the information you need to get to the provider gets to them."
Karl Ulfers, vice president of OptumHealth Care Solutions, the UnitedHealth Group subsidiary that has developed the company's mobile apps, said the company wants to use mobile technology not only to help process claims or figure out if a co-pay is due, but also help patients and physicians communicate beyond their brief face-to-face office encounters. That's what physicians say they want, Ulfers said.
"The administrative components are really important, but it's been interesting to see the demand and interest that has come out of nowhere the last year and half from physicians and hospital systems who want to extend the physician's presence beyond the 15-minute visit," Ulfers said.
But health plans are going to have to tread carefully, said Terrell Edwards, president and CEO of PerfectServe, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based company that specializes in connecting physicians and hospitals via phone and computer.
Mobile app developers have to consider data security, and they face a higher threshold for making a simple and useful app, because physicians are so pressed for time, he said.
"It comes down to whether this is the kind of application that's going to save a doctor time," Edwards said "If yes, then it's worth taking it to the next step. It it's just a nifty little thing, a 'this is sort of cool' -type thing, it won't go anywhere."
Although their members are their first priority, health plans have determined that their mobile strategy isn't complete without offerings for network physicians, particularly because physicians' embrace of smartphones and tablet computers has been so rapid and enthusiastic. A survey released in May by Manhattan Research found 81% of physicians using a smartphone, and various surveys find 25% to 30% of physicians using a tablet, with many more ready to buy one.
"Physicians are really high utilizers of smartphones," said Julie Kling, RN, mobile executive business lead at Humana. "We really want to make sure we provide an enhanced patient-physician ecosystem, make that a great experience."
She said the company still is working on what it will offer its physicians in a mobile format. Kling gave a few examples of things Humana would like to accomplish. They include: helping physicians communicate in a secure environment as an alternative to sending text messages, suggesting appropriate coding to ensure physicians are paid what they're entitled to, and perhaps sending physicians messages alerting them to "gaps in care," such as when a patient is due for a mammogram.
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