Health Apps: They’re Everywhere, And They Could Help Self-Funded Employers Control Healthcare Spending

When was the last time you scrolled through the health and fitness apps available on your favorite device? Maybe you’ll check them all out the next time you have, oh, five or six free days in a row. That’s probably about how long it would take you to review the full range of health apps available in your device’s app store.

There are more than 300,000 mobile health apps available in the marketplace. Some can literally save lives; others are a waste of your phone’s storage space. For self-funded employers, health apps represent a potential avenue to cut costs.

An Overview of Health Apps: Options and Benefits

If you start looking through your app store’s health and wellness offerings, you’ll notice that they run the gamut. There are health apps that let users track their sleep and combat insomnia. Cooking and nutrition apps are loaded with nutritious recipes, shopping list creators and lessons in how to prepare healthy food. Yoga apps are hugely popular, providing filmed workouts targeted at novices, experienced yogis and everyone in between. Health apps can lead users through guided meditation, help women track ovulation, help smokers quit the habit and even help parents of NICU babies track their infants’ development.

Exercise and fitness apps are tremendously popular. These include apps like Nike Run Club, which lets runners plan and track their runs, and Aaptiv, which provides thousands of audio workouts in a range of lengths and types. Peloton’s in-home bike and its associated app became something of a phenomenon over the last few years. Fitness apps like these allow users to work out anywhere and anytime. Someone whose schedule or budget doesn’t allow for regular gym trips can easily exercise at home.

Another subset of health apps connect users with medical professionals in real time. There are those like Amwell, which provide telemedicine services 24/7. Users can have live video conferences with remote physicians and get prescriptions filled to treat dozens of minor ailments. Users can even speak to licensed therapists through Amwell and similar apps. For people who live remotely or have mobility issues, telemedicine services may provide the only link to health care they have.

Health apps can also be used in conjunction with wearable devices for real-time medical monitoring. There are apps for patients who wear ECGs or blood pressure monitors, which can track activity and share results with the patient’s doctor. People with diabetes can measure their insulin and keep track of blood sugar readings. Apps are even being used for research purposes. Recently, Stanford Medicine partnered with Apple to run a study that examined data from participating Apple Watch wearers. The purpose of the study was to help researchers identify participants’ irregular heart rhythms, to improve the technology that doctors use in the diagnosis and treatment of these potentially fatal rhythms.

Finally, there are apps that help healthcare providers work efficiently and make accurate diagnoses. Apps like Medscape have clinical databases and pharmaceutical information that doctors can use for research. Some hospitals and providers even have their own proprietary apps for patients and visitors to use.

Health Apps and Healthcare Spending

A lot of the value in health apps for self-funded employers is in their ability to help users stay healthy, keeping them out of clinics and hospitals. Telemedicine services can replace some urgent care visits, saving the employer money. Apps that help users quit smoking or control their stress could keep them from developing medical conditions that are expensive to treat.

The use of digital health apps and wearable devices could cut acute care spending by $7 billion a year across five areas (diabetes prevention, diabetes care, asthma, cardiac rehabilitation and pulmonary rehabilitation), according to a 2017 report by the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science. The report posits that if this kind of technology was used to reduce acute care spending across all disease areas, healthcare spending could be cut by $46 billion per year.  Unfortunately, those benefits don’t extend to catastrophic conditions, or experimental drugs for which health apps have little or no application.

Problems with Health Apps

Health apps aren’t a silver bullet for reducing healthcare spending or improving patient care. They’re only used by a portion of consumers, and there’s no guarantee that a user who downloads an app will use it in a meaningful or habitual way. And, as with all apps, health apps could leave users vulnerable to data theft and privacy breaches. The risk is especially high if users are inputting personal, sensitive medical information.

The sheer number of choices is another barrier to consumers benefiting from health apps. When someone scrolls through hundreds of options, how can they know which app is trustworthy or appropriate for their needs? There’s also a risk in consumers overly relying on information provided by apps, or in using apps as a substitute for receiving preventative screenings and other appropriate medical care.

Educating employees and their families about health app options is just one way that self-funded employers can be proactive in controlling healthcare costs. What else can your self-funded employer do to manage healthcare spending? Learn about your options by contacting Stop Loss Insurance today.