Why Angry Birds Gets More Play Than Health Apps

I have been musing about why, despite our fascination with gadgets and timesaving devices, so few of us use the apps and tools that have been developed to help us take care of ourselves.

The range of options is staggering – my iPhone coughed up 52 applications for medication reminders just now – but most of us don’t make use of the (often free) high-tech help available to us.  There are hundreds of websites and portals to help us monitor our diets, physical activity and blood sugar, talk to our doctors by e-mail and understand our test results.  Apps can help us watch for drug interactions, unravel our test results, adjust our hearing aids and track our symptoms.  Devices can monitor whether our mom is moving around her house this morning or continuously monitor our vital signs.

Interesting ideas.  Modest pickup.

In an essay published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine supplement “Cyberinfrastructure for Consumer Health,” I make some observations about why this may be so, based on my experience as a person who daily responds to an exciting variety of chronic and acute conditions that ebb and flow in my body.  My remarks are addressed to those who fund and develop devices and Web-based tools to help those of us with chronic conditions better care for ourselves.

Briefly, I encourage them to:

  • Recognize and aim their efforts toward technologies that help us fulfill the specific new responsibilities and tasks we find challenging in our efforts to live long and well with our conditions.
  • Hurry up with those interoperable electronic health records (EHRs)!  Until EHRs are up and running, we are the ones responsible for doing all the getting, sending and schlepping of our records.  Often we don’t realize this; sometimes we forget and make mistakes.
  • Test those apps out on us.  Ask us if the problem in question is one we care about.  Check to see if the technology is easy enough to use so that it doesn’t add to the burden of caring for ourselves and our loved ones.
  • And how about if those new devices and apps are tested out specifically on those of us who stand to gain the most from a low-cost technical fix those who are older and who have multiple chronic conditions, not Web-savvy people you have recruited online.

My essay concludes with:

I urge developers, funders, evaluators of health information technology (HIT), and health professionals all to remember the context into which new HIT approaches enter: Caring for one’s chronic conditions is a tedious, uncomfortable lifelong job. Cool, cute and interesting programs and devices that help us monitor our blood pressure or remember to take our pills seem like they should break that tedium and attract our interest.

And indeed, many of us with chronic conditions are fun people. But keeping ourselves alive and out of pain is a serious business. We want to spend as little time as we possibly can occupied with the drudgery of caring for ourselves. If we are going to use a new website or device or program, we want it to be easy. We want it to save time, not take time. We do not want to have to learn a whole new technology on the off-chance it might help us out. And we do not want it to be fun. We want a technology that is efficient and useful—one that will help us take care of ourselves so that we can live lives that are fun.

Jessie Gruman, PhD, is the founder and president of the Washington, DC -based Center for Advancing Health. She is the author of Aftershock: What to Do When You or Someone you Love is Diagnosed with a Devastating Diagnosis. She blogs regularly on the Prepared Patient Forum.

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3 replies »

  1. There are simple answers to this question, and none of them have to do with the responsibility of developers to properly test or market apps. Its not the developers fault, its the consumer.

    Why does anything in a particular medium outsell medical? The simplest answer: Entertainment.

    Entertainment Weekly will outsell Arthritis Today.

    There are more people that want to be entertained than want to be educated on health. Doctors waiting rooms are full of entertainment magazines, but rarely do I see a Natural Health magazine.

    Apple iTunes never features a medical app on the front, but will feature the latest Twilight movie.

    Comparing apples to oranges and blaming the farmer…

  2. You ask a question — Why does Angry Birds Gets More Play Than Health Apps — but you never provide an answer to the question.

    The obvious answer is also the simplest — casual gaming (games like Angry Birds) is fun, easy to get in and get out of, and doesn’t make you feel especially guilty if you don’t play for a few days (or even weeks). It’s fun, it’s derives much of its enjoyment from providing simple, easy to obtain rewards, and it’s mildly addicting without being overtly so.

    Health apps, by their very nature, are rarely fun, and nearly always are tied to something of your own personal health that will make you feel guilty when you decide not to engage the app (or game) for a few days or even weeks. Guilt is not a good motivator, nor does it make you inclined to keep playing after the initial curiosity and such is gone.

    As for “fun,” I think that is very much in the eye of the beholder. There are many, many different patients with chronic conditions, and many of these people would very much indeed enjoy a health app that was more fun than what passes for a health app these days (glorified data entry and data tracking in pretty graphs).

  3. I think these apps fail on a marketing level. I checked the apps and I wasn’t inclined to download any of them even though they are free.

    More people may use it they included benefits instead of features. I read check your symptoms but that doesn’t help as much as ‘forget the uncertainty and narrow down what you could have.’