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How Hospitals Address Patient Experience via Mobile Apps

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   July 07, 2011

The number of people using mobile technology is on the rise. In 2008, the number of smartphone subscribers was 15 million. That number almost doubled in 2009, reaching 26 million, and is expected to grow to roughly 142 million in 2011, according to Nielsen Mobile, which tracks wireless trends.

So it’s no surprise that creating smartphone applications is an area that hospitals want to take advantage of. “It is another new way of marketing and interacting with patients and potential consumers,” says Barbara Mackovic, senior marketing manager at Louisville,

KY–based Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare (JHSMH). The world of communication is changing so rapidly, Mackovic says, that once you master one thing, it is already out of date. Mobile technology is “something that all marketers have to be aware of and figure out how that pertains to their target market,” she says.

Melissa Tizon, communications director at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, agrees. “At the end of the day, it is about what kind of experience patients are having with you. And if you can make that experience easier by putting something convenient on their phone, then those are the kinds of things that we want to do.”

Although mobile technology is an important feature that hospital marketers shouldn’t overlook, they also shouldn’t create an app just to be able to say they have one.

“There are so many [apps] that people download that aren’t used, so you have to think about what is useful,” says Tizon. Here is a look behind the two health systems’ mobile strategies.

Integrate mobile with other social media platforms

JHSMH is no stranger to social media: It already has a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and a YouTube channel. But it was looking for another way to have daily interaction with its community, so in April 2010 it launched its mobile application. “We figured that this is a great way to communicate with [members of the community] on an ongoing basis and give them the tools that they needed, specific to our community and healthcare system, at their fingertips,” says Mackovic.

It was also an opportunity to take all of the social media tools that JHSMH was already using and tie them together in a single location. “To have an effective mobile app, it has to be a one-stop shop and bring together the entire social media plan all under a central element,” she says. “The more you can integrate, the better.”

When designing its free mobile app, JHSMH didn’t want a general app package that any hospital could implement. “We thought about what the community needed and what makes our health system unique,” says Mackovic, adding that one of the health system’s selling points is that it has seven emergency departments (ED) in the region and more than 200 employed physicians.

“We wanted to make sure people could find that ED or physician who was closest to them that meets the criteria that they are looking for—gender, after hours, specialty,” she explains.

With JHSMH’s app, people can search for services within a mile of their home, and the health system recently updated the app to include ED wait times. In addition, the app features current health news—not just JHSMH news. “Subscribers can see a feed of interesting health news, which is what we use our Twitter account for,” Mackovic says. The JHSMH app also includes a food diary and calorie tracker to emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

To promote the app, JHSMH used some basic media—a press release, an outdoor board on its campus, and some table tents in its cafeteria—but it has mostly focused on word of mouth.

“We haven’t done a lot of traditional marketing,” says Mackovic. “The thing about social media is it doesn’t make sense to advertise in a more traditional way, so we really utilized other social media channels.” For example, the health system posted an explanatory video about the app on its YouTube channel.

As of the end of March, more than 2,100 people have downloaded the app, which is available on iPhone® and BlackBerry® devices.

Focus on core services

Swedish Medical Center, a four-hospital system, also focused on promoting one of its core services and maintaining its relationship with patients when it launched its Kids Symptom Checker app.

The health system has a pediatric specialty care program and delivers more babies than any other facility in Washington, says Tizon. “We have all of these women who come into our facility to deliver their baby and have this incredible experience with us,” she says. “Then they leave and we don’t really see them again, so we have been doing a lot of work to try to maintain that relationship with women after they leave our facility after having their babies.”

To that end, Swedish has been providing health information on its website and now via its new mobile app, which launched this past fall on iPhone devices and was scheduled to be made available for Android™ devices this spring.

“It is really helpful to our family medicine physicians and pediatricians for their patients to have access to information, so I guess you could say that they were one of the biggest drivers for getting this information available,” says Tizon.

The app helps subscribers get quick advice about what may be ailing their child, and includes an anatomic index of topics, a pediatric drug dosage table, and infection exposure questions, as well as information on how to take a temperature and advice on when to call a doctor.

Swedish is promoting its Symptom Checker app through social media and with the help of its family medicine physicians and pediatricians, who are informing their patients about it. The health system plans to track the app’s return on investment by measuring its number of downloads and by tracking how many people heard about Swedish’s services through the app.

Making your mobile strategy a success

One of the key lessons JHSMH learned when developing its app was not to spend too much time on the front end trying to make it perfect. “We knew that we weren’t going to get it perfect the first time with version 1.0. It was not going to be the end-all app,” says Mackovic. “So we got it out there. People loved it, but they gave a lot of feedback.”

For example, subscribers wanted to search for available physicians and hospitals by mile radius, not ZIP code. Also, the initial version of the food diary had users search by food group, but users indicated that, for example, they would rather type in “hamburger” and have any food group that was in a hamburger pop up, she explains.

To solicit feedback, JHSMH set up a Zoomerang online survey when it launched the app. It also uses the social media tracking service Radian6 to monitor what people are saying in blog posts and on Facebook and Twitter. “We got it out there and got that feedback and then adapted it to make it the best,” says Mackovic.

“You need to think in small bites,” adds Tizon. “You can’t do it all and need to think about what is useful.”

Your first inclination might be to create a mobile version of your website,

Tizon says, but most hospital websites are huge, containing thousands of pages. Ask yourself whether people are going to use a phone for that, she says. Instead, Tizon suggests that health systems focus on small pieces of information such as pediatric health or way-finding.

“Rather than trying to put your arms around everything and making everything mobile, think about what are the small things that you can do that will be helpful,” says Tizon.


Carrie Vaughan is a senior editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

Follow Carrie Vaughan on Twitter.

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