WebMD's revamped app is another step toward its longterm behavior change platform plans

By Brian Dolan
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WebMD iPhone appWith the launch of a revamped 4.0 version of its flagship app, WebMD has begun to execute on a strategy that Bill Pence, the company's EVP and CTO, laid out for Babyforyou.net.ua earlier this year. Based on my March discussion with Pence and a recent interview with Todd Zander, WebMD's VP of Mobile and Emerging Media, the longterm vision for WebMD is to create an app and web experience that includes health trackers, educational materials, app prescription mechanisms for providers, a storefront that highlights and markets biometric devices, and a series of behavior change programs that support them.

This week's relaunch of the WebMD app is but one baby step toward realizing that vision, but that step equips WebMD's iPhone app with some important new features.

For one, the new WebMD app marks the first time the company has bridged its popular consumer-facing app with its also popular healthcare provider facing app, Medscape.

Physicians can now "prescribe" patient education materials to their patients by pushing that content to the patient's phone. After getting their permission, the physician sends the patient a message with a link to a mobile-enabled website that features the educational material. Once loaded, that page invites visitors to download the WebMD app where they could also view (and save) the material for later viewing. Or, the patient can just view it on the mobile site and save the link for later viewing.

"This is going to be a long road," Zander told Babyforyou.net.ua. "We want to connect healthcare professional experiences on mobile with patient experiences on mobile and the first step is to allow doctors to prescribe educational materials to their patients from app to app. They will prescribe from their Medscape app patient education materials and the patient can access that from the WebMD web page or if they have the WebMD app then they can access it from the app."

"Once we perfect that use case -- and it is going to take some time -- then you can start to think about all the other exciting things that doctors can prescribe patients," he said. "You can also start to think about the kind of data that patients can send back to doctors in a very secure way."

WebMD believes that because physicians are well known to be mobile savvy -- they access health information from their phones all the time now -- they are likely interested in giving that same experience to their patients.

"You can imagine all the future use cases of doctors prescribing devices, prescribing apps -- there are all sorts of things that doctors could prescribe," Zander said.

Zander also noted that the new WebMD app is more personalized for users. WebMD has launched chronic pain, pregnancy, and baby tracking apps over the course of the past year, and these apps have helped it understand how important personalization is. Apps that can be customized and tailored to the individual lead users to come back more, spend more time in the apps, and enter more information, Zander said. The new WebMD app asks users specific questions about themselves and their lifestyle goals, including Do you want to sleep more? Do you want reduced stress? Do you want to maintain a better work-life balance? The app also asks users which kinds of activities they are interested in pursuing to achieve some of these goals, including losing weight or exercising.

The app also refreshes daily so the content and healthy tips are updated, which Zander believes will help people open and use the app daily instead of just when they are sick or have a particular health-related question: "What we learned with our website and with the original WebMD app is that people look for healthy living information just as much as they look for condition specific information."

Historically, WebMD's business model has centered on advertising. That's not likely to change any time soon, but the prospect of prescribing apps, devices, and offering behavior change programs in the future could open up new revenue streams for the company in the future.

"We generate revenue today predominantly on advertising," Zander said. "There is a lot of opportunity to learn about our users on mobile. This is true for WebMD just as it is at other large publishers: We have been trying to learn about our users on mobile. What they are doing. Who they are. Prior to this launch we didn't have a really robust, personalized experience. You could save drugs, save condition information, and other information like that, but we really didn't know if you were trying to lose weight, trying to reduce stress, or what your goals were. What's exciting now is we are starting to learn a lot about our users and what their goals are in life. I don't have to know who that specific person is, of course, but I can know that I've got all these people who want to lose weight or these people who want to sleep better."

The grouping is what's important to the advertisers, not personally identifiable information, Zander explained.

"When you look at all these different audiences," Zander said, "you are able to do some interesting things with advertising."

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