Interview: UnitedHealth's IT strategy listens to the mobile consumer


UnitedHealth Group has been exploring the health technology market for remedies to healthcare challenges. Leading the charge is Bill Feller (pictured), vice president of innovation and R&D and chief information officer of the emerging business group. FierceHealthPayer recently caught up with Feller to hear about how the insurer is developing mobile health tools to engage consumers, all while staying competitive in a growing app market.

FierceHealthPayer: Why did UnitedHealth create a strategy around health technology?

Bill Feller: The mobile strategy actually formed out of us looking at two trends we're seeing in the healthcare market space. The first one is around health achievement. People want to lose weight; they want to eat better; they want help controlling their chronic conditions. They want to get motivated and stay motivated to do these things.

We also looked at another key trend in the market space around system navigation. People want help and advice in managing their pain, or they've got a surgery coming up and they want to see alternatives, or they simply want help finding a doctor who is providing the care they want and is in their network, or they want something simple like understanding their claims. People want to feel empowered to make their choices in the healthcare system to do things like control[ing] their costs.

So when we looked at these two trends, we thought how best can we act on these trends? Then we looked at trends around mobility, specifically. And we saw trends developing around mobile access--like a study that found smartphone and tablet shipment exceeded desktop and notebook shipments, and predictions that mobility by 2014 will be the most common way people will access the Internet.

When we saw those things just in the macro, we then looked at the healthcare space. Manhattan Research put out a study that showed 80 percent of nurses have directed patients to a trusted healthcare site online, and the CDC's Twitter feed for emergency information has 1.2 million followers. When we saw the trends developing and how overwhelming they were, we thought how best do we apply work in the mobility space to these trends?

We came up with the concept of DocGPS, our first foray into the app space. In 2009, we developed DocGPS for the Windows 7 platform, and in 2010 we expanded it to other mobile platforms. What the app is designed to do is targeted at this system navigation trend. When one of our members logs in for the first time, it recognizes their healthcare plan; it can identify who are their network providers and who are out-of-network providers. It can help them identify doctors who meet their needs, who are providing the care they are looking for right then, and who are near them or at a facility near them that provides that sort of care. You can imagine how helpful it can be for a vacationing family that has a suddenly sick child or a family caregiver who is helping their out-of-town mom who falls ill.

So far, we're seeing more than 75,000 searches online using DocGPS. We took that success and said, "How do we carry this forward into our next app?" We started looking at other health challenges and focused on the growing problem of obesity and decided we should build an app that focuses on weight loss. There are lots of weight loss apps in the market space right now, but we did some research around what gets people motivated and keeps them motivated to lose weight. We saw trends around competition--that if people incorporate competition into their weight loss, they tend to get motivated and stay motivated to a greater extent. We also looked at peer groups. There's a high likelihood that a person's immediate social peer group mirrors their personal health (their personal healthy or unhealthy lifestyle choices). Maybe you're a runner; there's probably a very good chance there are runners in your social peer group. When we looked at this idea of competition, along with peer groups, we decided to pull those things together (plus our learnings from DocGPS) and came up the concept of OptumizeMe. We put this out in 2010, on the heels of our DocGPS release, and we expanded it to more mobile platforms in 2011.

We put the first version of OptumizeMe in the iTunes store so it could be downloaded by anybody. The app helped people create challenges and then invite people into a social peer group to be part of their challenge or support them in the challenge. It might be something straightforward as "Let's all eat a healthy lunch between now and Christmas," or it might be a little more complex like "Let's all try and lose 10 pounds by the new year," or very complex such as "Let's all run a marathon in May and set up intermediate milestones along the way." From the usage of OptumizeMe, we're finding that people on average were inviting two or more people into their challenges. So it really has validated our ideas on the design of applications--that people want to be involved with their social peer groups and this concept of health achievement.

FHP: How long did it take to implement those mobile initiatives?

BF: The first versions of OptumizeMe and DocGPS were [completed within] the months' timeframe.

FHP: In addition to DocGPS and OptumizeMe, what other mobile initiatives are in the works at UnitedHealth?

BF: We've been considering those two trends in other things that we build. For example, we took our standard portal (, along with the greatly growing desire to get on the Internet with mobile devices, and we decided to build a mobile myuhc platform. We looked at what people want to see when they're on they go. We know people are on the go when they're going to the see their doctor so we built in their health ID card. You can see the front and back of the card so if you forgot the card when you're visiting your doctor, you can see it online and send it to them via email or fax. People also want to see their current coverage, where they are against their deductible, and their recent claims so we brought those to the mobile platform. We've seen more than a million and a half log-ins so far, so we're thinking we're kind of in the sweet spot of what people want to see while they're online.

FHP: Have UnitedHealth consumers been willing to embrace the new technology tools? 

BF: Absolutely. We've seen real pick up and pretty quick pick up in the mobile myuhc platform with 1.5 million log-ins thus far. The trends we're seeing around mobility and then trends around mobility in the healthcare space is near what we're seeing at UnitedHealth, as well.

FHP: Were there any obstacles to developing mobile tools?

BF: I think the barriers used to be things like development resources. But those barriers have really gone away. The real challenge is getting and building the mobility apps that people really want. Like I said, there are lots of apps in the market space. But apps around the trends of health achievement, apps that are well-thought through around navigation, that's what we we're seeing people want. I think focusing on the right thing--what people really want--is the key to success in this area.

FHP: Has UnitedHealth seen any savings or improved outcomes thanks to its mobile initiatives? 

BF: The benefit for us is bringing this information to the people we serve every day--moms and dads, kids, their parents, caregivers. DocGPS and OptumizeMe (with the first version built for every consumer) weren't aimed at specifically trying to save money or make money for us; we were trying to address needs of the consumer market space.

FHP: What are some other consumer needs that the Innovation and R&D department is working to address?

BF: We see four challenge areas in the market of healthcare. Issues like enabling quality, empowering consumers, driving affordability, and overall transformation of the delivery model. So in looking at the challenges that people have in the market space, we've been developing innovations around those things for years--all the way back into the late 70s, we've putting out innovations around those challenges.

FHP: What advice would you give to insurers looking to create their own mobile health strategy?

BF: The key for any initiative is to listen to your consumer or your customer. As we have developed our initiatives, whether in the mobility space, listening to the customer and what they desire really drove us to recognize those trends and then build our innovation initiatives around those trends. Focusing around what the healthcare consumer--the parents, the children, the family caregiver--what they want and what they need, I think that is what's most important.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.