An App a Day Keeps Attrition at Bay: Penn Medicine Innovates Bariatric Care with an iPhone App

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Last December, Penn Medicine developed and released Penn Life Gained, an award-winning, first-of-its-kind iPhone app that helps bariatric patients collect and organize the extensive health data they must track before and after surgery. 

Penn clinicians like Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, RD, Program Manager for the Penn Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program, were inspired to create the smartphone app after realizing that other bariatric apps were not clinically based, collected incorrect or incomplete health data, or simply contained support group directories.

As the only patient-focused bariatric app developed using the Apple CareKit — a software framework designed to help people manage medical conditions — Penn Life Gained can collect health data from the Apple Health App, as well as from third party programs and devices, such as MyFitnessPal and LoseIt. 

Penn Life Gained app screenshot As a partner-app to Penn Life Gained, a clinician-facing app syncs the two applications and allows the care team to monitor patients’ health data in real-time. This health data is collected and shared automatically, which allows Penn’s clinical team to personalize clinic visits, develop to-do lists and manage personalized care plans — as well as spot areas of concern quickly. Penn Life Gained is the only bariatric surgery app with a corresponding clinician app.

Together, the two connected apps aim to reduce preoperative attrition, reduce 30-day hospital readmission rates and optimize long-term weight loss. 

"If we can set our patients up with a resource that will break down the mountain of steps and tracking into easier to manage pieces, we believe they will be more likely to achieve their goals,” said Noel Williams, MD, Director of the Penn Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program, in an interview with Becker’s. “Since we cannot see our patients every day, we've created a platform where our clinicians can be there to support them even after they leave the clinic.” 

After surgery, Penn Life Gained asks patients to report their pain levels, any changes to their incision, drainage, nausea or vomiting. If their self-reported information indicates a problem, patients are directed to call their care team immediately.

Development Process

Penn Medicine’s bariatric team had identified the need for a patient-focused app nearly five years ago, but until recently lacked the funding and technical team to develop one. That changed when the bariatric team collaborated with Penn’s Corporate Information Services team and partnered with Medable, a healthcare app and analytics platform. Classified as a quality improvement project, app development began in February 2017 and launched by December of that year.

To ensure that the app was as user-friendly as possible, Dr. Tewksbury conducted several focus groups with bariatric patients, using the information she gathered to tweak the app’s design and translate clinical information into layman’s terms. Patients told her they were frustrated that other bariatric apps were not more personalized. To address this, Penn Life Gained was designed to automatically populate with the correct information no matter where the patient is in the surgery process. (For example, if the app tells patients to take two calcium supplements, but they purchased a brand that tells them to take three pills, the app can be easily adjusted.)

On the clinical side, Dr. Tewksbury reached out her wide network at Penn — including experts from psychology, surgery, nursing and nutrition — to ensure the app would address their areas of concern and track the clinical data they needed to provide better care. 

Moving Bariatric Care into the Future

As the only bariatric surgery app that aggregates personalized health data from a wide array of apps to individualize treatment plans, Penn Life Gained is truly moving bariatric care into the 21st century. 

“Individuals want to play an active part in their medical care,” Dr. Tewksbury explained. “Penn Life Gained allows them to utilize a technology to do that. People really latch onto FitBits and WiFi-enabled scales and other tools that allow us to take control and actively participate,” she continued. “The Penn Bariatric Surgery Program is moving along with this cultural shift.”

Additional Penn Bariatric Surgery Resources

The Penn Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program is a MBSAQIP Accredited Center – Comprehensive at all three Penn locations: Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

About this Blog

The Penn Physician Blog is a resource for health care professionals featuring Penn Medicine physicians and their research, innovations, programs and events. 

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