New Program Gives Low-Income Clients iPhone, Apps To Access Health Care

Jul 5, 2016

As shown in this advertising slide, clients using the Wellbridge app are asked simple questions each day to help monitor their health.
Credit Wellbridge

In a small office at the base of the Birmingham Bridge on Pittsburgh’s South Side, social workers and app developers are coming together to help vulnerable medical patients.

“Vulnerable for us is at or below the federal poverty level,” said Cynthia Zydel, CEO of Wellbridge Health

Wellbridge Health is a management solutions company aimed at reducing unnecessary hospitalizations. It targets Medicaid and low-income Medicare insurance holders with chronic health conditions. 

Zydel said the company is, “using technology to help them stay in their home, learn more about their disease so they are living healthier (lives) and ultimately staying out of the hospital, out of the emergency room and saving health plans who insure them money.”

Wellbridge recently completed a six-month pilot of its app using low-income heart failure patients. It’s about to initiate its first paying contracts

The idea is to contract with health insurance providers to help them work with their “vulnerable” clients to improve health outcomes. 

The insurance company would expect to save money because its clients spend less time with doctors. To help keep the vulnerable clients out of the emergency room, Wellbridge has created an app that asks five simple questions.

“They are very graphically represented so they are easy to just pick a face or pick a graphic rather than having to read a lot,” Zydel said.

The questions are tailored to the client’s specific illness. But since these are low-income clients, they are not simply told to go to iTunes and download the Wellbridge app.

When a Wellbridge social worker makes an initial home visit they also give the client an iPhone Plus that comes with a free data and calling plan. Zydel said that tends to be a better option than a device that only links back to Wellbridge.

“We give them an iPhone and they are able to video chat with their grandchild or they are able to download and use apps that might help their cognitive level, so we encourage the use of the phone,” Zydel said. “We also wanted them to have a phone number and to reach them by phone and for their PCP to have the phone number.”

Zydel said the people Wellbridge works with often only have a flip phone provided by the state and are sometimes worried about using up their minutes.

“We encourage them to be connected,” Zydel said.

Wellbridge social worker Karey Kerns Yonich echoed Zydel’s belief that the iPhone is beneficial in keeping clients, who are often very isolated from society, more connected. She said that connection helps their health outcomes.

Once a week, Yonich or another social worker checks in with the client via video chat. Usually social workers make such visits in person, but Yonich said the technology doesn’t seem to get in the way.

“I think people are really sort of excited by it,” Yonich said. “This is not something that they have been exposed to very much. Once they understand it and learn to trust it, they feel as if it’s just like any other appointment that you would have.”

Zydel said the pilot project saw a 93 percent response rate over six months for daily check-ins and video conferences. She’ll use that data as she tries to sign up new insurance providers. Zydel said she hopes to add a few more social workers and a nurse in the coming weeks. 

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