Alexandra Drane, co-founder of the Eliza Corporation and Engage with Grace, looked out over the audience Thursday at Partners Healthcare’s Connected Health Symposium and confessed that she’d once owned an activity tracker.

“I stopped,” she said, “because it was hurting my feelings.”

An example of patient engagement – or, as Drane would call it, consumer engagement – gone wrong. And an all-too-common problem in healthcare these days.

Finding that elusive formula for keeping the consumer interested in healthcare was at the forefront of many discussions at this week’s symposium, running through Friday at Boston’s Seaport Convention Center. And Drane’s experience illustrates the issues both consumers and healthcare providers are facing: Consumers aren’t being compelled to adopt healthier lifestyles or use connected health tools, and doctors aren’t sure how to incentivize them to do so.

Drane, a charismatic co-host for the two-day conference who’s well-known in the mHealth community, said she ditched her activity tracker because it was telling her what she already knew – she wasn’t exercising enough, was too stressed out, and wasn’t getting enough sleep. Why, she wondered, couldn’t she have a device that would “flirt with me or beguile me,” making her want to live healthier?

That’s a language that most mHealth devices aren’t speaking. Indeed, while consumer-facing wearable devices and trackers might be enjoying unprecedented interest, many advocates say the current wave of devices will eventually join the forgotten ranks of the Walkman, the Polaroid and the Beanie Baby. That’s because they won’t be able to keep the public’s interest beyond the initial “fad” stage. In short, people are not motivated enough to keep going with them.

Jen Hyatt, CEO and founder of The Big White Wall, a digital platform for mental health professionals and consumers, said today’s mHealth innovators need to recognize the difference “between what we do and what we say we’re going to do.” To wit: Everyone wants to live a healthier life, and everyone will say they’ll eat better and exercise more, but when push comes to shove, they lose their way. We need devices that will collect data on what we actually do, and then compare that to what we should be doing.

In fact, Hyatt and others say mHealth is uniquely poised to bridge that gap between intention and action because today’s devices can collect data, store it, analyze it and point consumers in the right direction. They can also benchmark that data for providers to guide their patients and develop better care management plans.

But will consumers care?

“The technology is there today to do true body-integrated care computing,” said David Ickes, former CEO and founder of MC10, a company focused on wearable sensors. “What you need is a form factor that consumers will not just tolerate but embrace.”

Ickes himself wondered whether consumers would prefer a wearable mHealth device that makes a fashion statement or one that’s unobtrusive and invisible. And he fretted that the better the technology gets at gathering data, the more it’s apt to attract “Big Brother” criticism.

But the ability to gather vital information about one’s body and deliver that in real time to both the consumer and care coordinators should be paramount, Ickes said. “And body computing is not just about sensing,” he added – the platform needs analytics to digest that data, point out trends and suggest pathways to better health.

As we’ve seen time and again, though, just because an mHealth device might make you live a healthier life doesn’t mean you’ll want to use it.

More importantly, consumers can’t be scared away from mHealth the way Drane was. Kyra Bobinet, an instructor in health engagement at Stanford’s School of Medicine and CEO and founder of engagedIN, said consumer engagement has to be seen in a positive light – regardless of what we think we want to do.

“People mean well,” she said, “but, on the other side, there is this irrational, illogical, behavioral evidence that we don’t do what we want to do.”

Bobinet offered a somber example of what mHealth can do, if done right, and if the consumer is incentivized. While in New York, she was able to schedule a weekend hospital appointment for her sick daughter, a college student in San Diego, and even use Uber to get her a ride from the college to the hospital and back. The daughter was diagnosed with a version of strep and then treated.

Not so one of the daughter’s classmates, who apparently didn’t feel well but, for some unknown reason, didn’t get medical care until the following Tuesday. A few days after she was hospitalized, Bobinet said, the student died of meningitis.

“This tragic loss has had a positive impact on thousands of young students to pursue care, who would otherwise not engage in their health,” Bobinet later told mHealth News.


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