Survey: Health Insurers Turning to Mobile Solutions

Insurance companies hope to bring in young consumers by offering mobile-friendly ways to make health care decisions.

Using a smart phone.

According to a new survey released by PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute (HRI), the new health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act are already giving insurers and tech companies alike an opportunity for innovation.

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The success of the new healthcare law hinges upon consumers between the ages of 18 and 35 – the so-called young invincibles, who use relatively few medical services. Out of the target goal of 7 million in 2014, the federal government hopes to enroll 2.7 million young adults through the health insurance marketplaces when they open on Oct. 1.

The survey, released in mid-September, found that 25 percent of insurers offering plans on the state-run marketplaces are entering the individual market for the first time, a sign that competition may be fierce (and premium prices low). But even those who have long-standing histories in the industry are tapping into new ways to attract that younger, healthier, insurance-buying population.

The HRI survey reported that almost 90 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 said they would use social media tools for "health-related activities." As such, insurers are going mobile in order to target this group. HRI Managing Director Ceci Connolly compared insurers' new move to mobile applications to the rise of online banking. "No one goes to a teller anymore," she points out. "All sorts of customers are now demanding the same sort of speed and convenience in the health industry."

"They want to be able to e-mail their doctor and look up information right at their finger tips," she adds.

Connolly suggests that this trend will continue. "Consumers like comparison tools,"she says, but they also want to be able to access all of their healthcare information in the same place. In 2012, Aetna released CarePass, a tool that brings together 25 of its mobile health partners so that consumers may do just that. Since it launched, the app has been downloaded more than 100 million times. Another application pushed by Aetna, iTriage, allows consumers to find doctors; it's open to the public, but Aetna members can use it to find a doctor within their own networks.

[READ: The Hidden Costs of 'Affordable' Health Insurance Plans]

The insurance start-up company, Oscar, has hired tech professionals from Microsoft, Tumblr, and the gaming company Vostu Ltd. to deliver a user-friendly experience when buying insurance. The company will sell plans on the New York exchange in 2014. "Members will be able to log into a personalized online account, type in their symptoms, click a button to speak directly with a doctor, and find in-person providers who are recommended by condition and cost," according to the PwC report.

Some insurance companies have tried more traditional routes. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, for example, has partnered with Walgreens to reach potential enrollees as they shop in any of the drug store's 8,000 outlets nationwide.

The survey points out that insurers will have to adjust to more than just a tech-savvy consumer base. The Young Invincibles tend to be a more positive, more environmentally-conscious generation, focusing on "wellness" as opposed to "medical care." Things such as "tangible rewards" like advertising free teeth-whitening with a dentist visit could push young enrollees to keep up with their health care. Other programs, like HumanVitality, encourage consumers to perform healthy behaviors in exchange for "Vitality Bucks" that can be used to shop for products on their website.

Though many providers will sell insurance both on and off the exchange, consumers must beware that in order to offer lower premiums, insurers have also reduced plan network sizes. The survey claims that Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plans will limit in-network providers and may not include expensive hospitals or providers within exchange plans. For that reason, it is important for consumers to not only evaluate the price of a plan, but to also check with their providers to make sure they will still be in-network.

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