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How to improve digital health patient engagement: onboarding
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How to improve app onboarding to promote patient engagement within digital health apps

The healthcare system is designed around “encounters,” but these short visits aren’t able to tell the full story of a patient’s health challenges and recovery. Health concerns happen every day, everywhere. Digital healthcare solutions that support people between and beyond their encounters provide value that is not possible within the current healthcare system — but is increasingly essential. However, like any app, digital healthcare applications only work when people regularly engage with them.

But even getting a patient to open a digital health app for the first time is a challenge. According to estimates, over 350,000 digital health apps are currently available to consumers. However, availability isn’t translating to usage. A staggering 83% of apps have been installed fewer than 5,000 times. Even simple forms of digital health apps, like patient portals (which 90% of providers offer) struggle to engage users with usage estimated to be between 15-30%.

Solving the user engagement and retention challenge is essential to all apps, but especially those in the healthcare space where an engaged user base can increase access to healthcare, correct disparities, and improve patient outcomes. At Vessel Partners, we specialize in leveraging academic and clinical research to create apps that provide patients with round-the-clock support. In this series, we’ll share some actionable tips for designing easy-to-use, engaging apps — along with real world examples of how we implement these strategies.

Patient engagement starts with good onboarding

The promise of digital health can only be fulfilled if patients use the healthcare technology in question. That’s why the first subject in this series about improving engagement is app onboarding.

Onboarding is an essential first step for any successful app — but often the most difficult. Digital healthcare apps, which cater to a different user base than the average consumer app, face even greater challenges. Patients are not necessarily tech-savvy and aren’t always eager to download another app. To combat these impediments, we aim for two things at every step of the user journey when designing digital health applications:

  1. Ease of use
  2. Instantaneous value

Simplify sign-in and authentication

“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” It’s a cliche for a reason, and in the world of apps, the onboarding experience is your first chance to make a good impression on your users. If the onboarding process is confusing or overly taxing, your users will not make it past this step. Here are our tips for making onboarding new patients to your digital healthcare app as seamless as possible:

  • Automate invitations: If the onboarding process requires patients to spend valuable time just searching for a download, they’re more likely to get frustrated or distracted. That’s why we recommend automated invitations sent directly from a clinician or administrator. Not only does this eliminate the need to track down a link or search for the app in an overcrowded app store, it allows the clinician to directly communicate the value of the app with the patient. For patient-reported outcomes (PRO) collection platform DataBiologics, we made sure all app invitations were accompanied by an automated message from the patient’s provider.
  • Simplify authentication: Authentication is critical for healthcare apps — and must be HIPAA compliant — but the more personal information a patient has to enter, the more likely it is they’ll disengage. We’ve found the best apps build authentication into the invitation process so little verification (e.g. a phone number or email) is needed from the end-user.
  • Prioritize your password strategy: Lastly, it’s important to consider your password strategy when building an easy-to-use app. Complex passwords are often necessary for healthcare apps, but a passwordless system can significantly improve onboarding retention. It’s a challenge, but with some technical wizardry and a few design constraints, it is possible to develop a passwordless system that is still HIPAA compliant.

Motivate users with immediate value

It’s not enough to tell patients the app can improve their health; the app has to provide immediate, meaningful value to motivate downloads and sign-ups. This value proposition varies by app, but there are some general principles to keep in mind if you want to motivate users to sign-up.

First, remember that human beings are inherently social creatures. Social media is a global phenomenon for a reason, and if an app can deliver that same feeling of community, it can motivate users to sign-up and get connected.

When we designed the onboarding process for Perk Health, we accompanied app invitations with a notification to connect with friends already using the app. The desire to connect motivated patients to begin the onboarding process, and maintained retention further down the pipeline.

Second, you must make it clear from the first interaction that your app will provide information and support that a patient will find valuable. Healthcare audiences are just as distracted — if not more so — than the average app user and you are competing for their attention. Your value proposition must be immediately obvious.

When we designed TAPR, an app to help patients taper off opioid medications, we demonstrated value by immediately taking a pain score and showing patients a visual that helps them better understand trends in their pain. With that concrete context established, the app then delivered relevant content — such as information on what to expect during the taper process, and/or feel-good success stories.

The next step: engagement & retention

With your users onboarded successfully, it’s time to talk about the ongoing process of user engagement and retention. The same principles of ease of use and instantaneous value apply, but are implemented differently. Learn more about how we approach this challenge in the next article in our engagement series: “How to improve digital health patient engagement: user retention.”

To learn more about how Vessel Partners can help you create a more engaging user experience to provide better health outcomes for your patients, contact us.

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