Healthcare’s Mobile App Conundrum

by: Mike Wiebe


The glow of modern smartphone screens continues to shine bright with mobile apps eating up more and more of our audience’s media time. Where eyeballs go, marketers tend to follow; with mobile apps in healthcare, however, the right path forward is often not so clearly defined. Here are some important things to consider if you’re pondering what your mobile app approach should be.

Time Spent vs. Reach (Fight!)

According to ComScore’s Mobile App Report1, smartphone apps are rapidly approaching half of the total digital media time spent by consumers. That makes apps the single biggest contributor to the overall increase in digital media consumption over the last two years.

Other data from eMarketer also reflects this growth, however, their data also shows that the time spent in apps is surpassing the time spent browsing the mobile web by almost 3 times.

eMarketer Chart

It’s easy to look at this data and decide that apps should be prioritized over the mobile web, but there’s other important findings to consider. Despite the fact that apps are dominating in time spent, they’re not dominating in audience size. Mobile web properties have audiences that are more than 2.5x the size, and these audiences are also growing twice as fast2.

So should you make an app, or invest more in a mobile site? More and more, a line is starting to be drawn. The mobile web gives you audience reach, but native apps can deliver richer experiences. In many cases it might not be as simple as choosing one or the other, because the two channels can help to accomplish different goals.

Content or Utility (Choose Your Strategy)

According to a study from Manhattan Research, in 2013, about 95 million Americans used their mobile phones as healthcare tools, or to search for healthcare related information. That was a 27 percent increase from 2012. At the rate at which the medical apps market is growing, its predicted worth in 2017 is expected to top $26 billion in the US alone. With all this mobile “opportunity” opening up, how could you lose?

Not having a clear app strategy is certainly one way.
In many ways, big-Pharma fumbled in the early days of the app revolution, leaving many brands with big budget expenditures and few tangible results. It also left app stores awash in abandoned healthcare apps, destined to grow cobwebs and never see an update again.

When it comes to building an app, you’ve essentially got to choose one of two plays. Content or Utility?


A content app is one that typically falls on the education and consumption end of the scale. When you think of a content app, think of apps like CNN, Facebook, Pandora or YouTube. To succeed, these types of apps typically need to be highly visual, fun and immersive. They also need to be updated with fresh content…FREQUENTLY.

In our experience, this is where Pharma brands usually start to fall down. Content is expensive, it’s complicated, and without good, ongoing governance it gets messy pretty quickly. To put it bluntly, if you have a content app, you need to continually feed the beast. If you don’t, it won’t be long before your app usage falls off the deep end.

Thinking about making disease education your content? Better have a steady stream of unique content planned, or our advice would be to leave apps alone and come up with a mobile-optimized website approach. Let’s take a look at the typical journey a patient or HCP takes to find educational content on the web vs. an app.

Content Search

As you can see, the path to content through an app can be a bit of a pain for users. Unless you can add tremendous value to your content (and to your user) by developing an app, and you have a strategy for ongoing updates, you will likely be better served with a mobile-optimized web experience.


A utility-focused app is one that performs a task or function. When you think of a utility app, think of apps like Google Maps, Bank of America, or Nike+ (a workout tracker). To succeed, these apps should be useful, efficient and reliable.

“The apps that get noticed have high ratings - they’re the one we can’t live without. They don’t get deleted off iPhones and iPads.” John Geleynse - Apple Director of Technology Evangelism

Utility apps can add tremendous value to a user’s life. During our attendance at various Apple developer events, we’re frequently told that the best apps should perform a few, discreet functions exceptionally well. In other words, don’t try to be all things to all people or do too much. Keep it simple and focused.

If you were salivating at the time and attention stats at the beginning of this article, there’s still one statistic to keep in mind. Half of all time spent on smartphone apps occurs on the individual’s single most used app. The rest of that time is split up in what the user considers the “best” app for each given utility or purpose.

In our experience, utility-focused apps tend to fair better for most Pharma brands. The competition can be fierce for most uses, however, so plan to bring your A-game if you’re going down this path.

Get Found in the Digital Haystack

With over 1.6 million Android apps in the Google Play store and 1.5 million iOS apps in Apple’s App Store, it’s pretty safe to say that just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come.

Want to see for yourself? Go into an app store and do a search for almost any disease state. You’ll likely see hundreds of apps all vying for the attention of those customers.

A recent study by Smart Patient3 looked at 359 apps from 20 of the world's largest pharma companies. They found that the top 10 apps accounted for 66% of all downloads.

If you decide to build an app, here’s a few things you can do to give it a fighting chance:

  1. Establish an adequate promotional budget - your app needs to be found.
  2. Implement a strategy to collect ongoing user reviews - ratings can sway app downloaders.
  3. Provide good screen shots and an app demo video on your app’s store page - it’s an app “store” and every successful product needs good “merchandising.

Keep your App Sticky

Here’s some potentially sobering stats to keep in mind:

Native Mobile Apps

User Loss Statistics

Source: www.lukew.com

When it comes to making apps, the first-use experience can be critical to user retention. The software industry often refers to this as an on-boarding experience. An app with a great on-boarding experience gives users a good first impression and makes them feel confident in how to use your app.

At Apple’s recent worldwide developer’s conference, a session addressed the topic of what goes into making a great app that actually gets used. Here’s Apple’s take on things. Great apps are:

  • Delightful
  • Innovative
  • State of the art
  • Connected
  • Accessible
  • Designed
  • Disruptive

We couldn’t agree any more!

In Closing

After reading all this, it might sound like we’re trying to convince clients that mobile apps aren’t a good investment. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is success to be found, but it’s important you go into it with both eyes open. Like almost any marketing tactic, the right strategy and adequate investment makes all the difference.

1 https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Presentations-and-Whitepapers/2015/The-2015-US-Mobile-App-Report
2 https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Presentations-and-Whitepapers/2015/The-2015-US-Mobile-App-Report
3 http://mobihealthnews.com/45759/in-us-uk-and-germany-top-10-pharma-apps-make-up-66-percent-of-downloads

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