Consumer Use of Digital Health Tools Rising Rapidly

Ken Terry

December 19, 2016

The adoption of digital health tools has grown significantly in the past year, according to the second annual consumer survey from Rock Health, a San Francisco–based venture capital firm.

Forty-six percent of consumers are now "active digital health adopters," compared with 19% in 2015, the national survey of just more than 4000 people found. This means that they have used three or more categories of digital health tools, including mobile health apps, wearables, telemedicine, and downloads of electronic health records. Only 12% of the respondents were nonadopters of digital health technologies, compared to 20% in 2015, Rock Health noted.

The adoption of digital health tools was most significant among millennials (18 to 34 years old). Forty percent of millennials owned a wearable device, vs 26% of Gen Xers (35 to 54 years old) and 10% of baby boomers (55 years and older). The same disparities were seen with respect to the adoption of live video telemedicine (42%, 25%, and fewer than 5%, respectively), recent downloads of mHealth apps (33%, 20%, and 7%), and electronic record downloads (45% of millennials vs nearly a third of Gen Xers and a quarter of baby boomers).

Of the respondents who had downloaded a mobile app, most were using them to quantify their health: for example, by measuring physical activity (44%) or heart rate (31%). The least likely metrics to be recorded in an app were blood pressure (14%) and medication adherence (10%). So, although nearly a third of the people who downloaded an app did so because their doctor recommended it, there didn't seem to be much emphasis on using apps in the treatment of chronic diseases.

Nearly a quarter of consumers owned a wearable, up from 12% in 2015, the survey found. The most popular wearable device makers were Samsung (30%), Fitbit (26%), and Apple (22%), followed by Garmin and Jawbone. The wearable devices from these manufacturers included wristbands and watches, such as the Apple SmartWatch.

Consumers made the majority of their wearable purchases to help themselves become more physically active, Rock Health said. They also bought wearables to lose weight, get better sleep, and better manage stress.

Only 8% of people who rated their health as poor had purchased a wearable device in the past year. Of those, 53% did so as an experiment, 42% to become more physically active, and 35% to lose weight.

The survey showed that 77% of consumers were interested in sharing their health data with their doctors. Nevertheless, 87% wanted to control who had access to their data, and 86% wanted to be told what health data were being collected about them.

Telemedicine

The Rock Health survey used a very broad definition of telemedicine, including communications between physicians and patients through a variety of channels. The results showed that the most popular telemedicine medium was telephone (59%), followed by email (41%), text messaging (29%), app-based media (24%), and live video (22%). The adoption of video-based telemedicine more than tripled from 7% in 2015.

More growth is likely in the near future. Many respondents said they planned to communicate with providers by phone (18%), email (23%), text message (23%), app-based media (26%), and live video (28%).

Thirty percent of telemedicine visits were self-pay, considerably higher than the portion of visits covered by insurance (11%) or employers (10%). Roughly a third of telemedicine encounters were free.

Eighty-three percent of consumers expressed satisfaction with video consults, a higher satisfaction rate than for any other telemedicine channel. Across all telemedicine platforms, satisfaction rates exceeded 75%.

Telemedicine usage was highest among millennials, followed by Gen Xers. Baby boomers were the least likely to have used telemedicine.

The Rock Health report also touched on the use of the Internet as a digital health tool. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents had searched online for information about their symptoms, and 56% of those people had proposed their own diagnosis to physicians on the basis of that information. Similarly, 52% of respondents had searched online for information on treatment options, and 52% of those people had brought their search results to their doctors.

Over a third of respondents had written an online review about a provider. They were more likely to do so on health-focused sites, such as ZocDoc or Healthgrades, than on general rating sites, such as Yelp, the survey found.

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