There are few, if any, large corporations that use mobile technology to engage their customers as effectively as Louisville, KY-based health insurer Humana.

The company’s Games 4 Health program is among the most innovative mobile health programs anywhere and the projects like B-Cycle are revolutionizing bike sharing and incentivizing healthy lifestyles.

I recently had a chance to hear Julie Kling, head of mobile strategy for Humana, outline the company’s strategy during a panel discussion at the December mHealth Summit in Washington, DC. I was very impressed by her understanding of how mobile technology can improve customer engagement and provide information to patients at critical points in the care delivery process. What was clear from the panel is that other large health plans and wellness organizations could stand to learn a great deal from Humana.

I was able to interview Julie Kling following the mHealth Summit to gain some insights on how Humana develops its mobile apps, what specific problems they hope to solve for their members with their mobile products and services, and how her experience as a nurse helps inform her vision for keeping Humana on the cutting edge of mHealth innovation.

See the transcript of my discussion with Julie Kling below.

BTE: How does your background as a nurse effect your perspective and inform your strategy decisions at Humana?

Julie Kling: I think I have a real world experience that helps me to understand what the needs are from both a patients perspective as well as the members here at Humana. I understand what the challenges are in managing a chronic illness and its impact on a persons well-being and all of the factors that go into that individuals health.

Humana has this well-being strategy which not only takes into account the patients health, including emotional, physical and spiritual, but also focuses on belonging, security and purpose, and as a nurse that all makes a lot of sense to me in terms of helping to support people managing their life and lifestyle. That is what we are really trying to do by building a mobile capability that really addresses the needs that an individual has and helps to provide those supportive capabilities.

BTE: As a consumer, the first thing that springs to mind when I think of health insurance is cost. At Humana do you use mobile to give your members tools to help manage or even lower the cost of their plan?

Julie Kling: I think there are quite a few components or features that are there to help people make better health care decisions that may impact their financial accountability for their health care. One of those I mentioned in my presentation at the mHealth Summit allows users to see what the costs are for a particular drug their doctor is about to prescribe them.

I had a very personal experience with this when I had a doctor prescribing me a drug that cost $140/month, and I went and did a simple search on our website and was able to find a $4/month alternative, and if I had been able to do that while I was at the doctor’s office it certainly would have helped me and its part of the reason why we want to have that feature available to our members.

We did some consumer research and we found our members were primarily interested in tools that can help them manage their costs, so you will see that type of information featured in our mobile apps, for example members can view their health savings account balance and immediately upon using their health savings account they will see the transaction in their mobile app so they can see precisely how much they have available to use to cover prescriptions or other services.

Our members can use the app to find out how close they are to meeting their deductible. In fact, one member sent us a note via the iPhone market to tell us that they were going in for surgery at a hospital and the hospital had asked them to pay $2400 dollars up front before the surgery and they were able to show that they had met their deductible just by using the app so they weren’t required to pay the $2400 before their surgery. These are just a few examples of how people can really manage the financial component of their health care by using the MyHumana app.

BTE: How do you build the apps, do you have an internal team of developers at Humana or do you partner with other companies on different projects?

Julie Kling: We actually do build internally. Our MyHumana app is built internally, we have a couple technical teams that focus exclusively on mobile, but that doesn’t mean we don’t partner on occasion. If its something that we don’t consider a core competency, which for us is our claims rescinding, our birth benefits and health benefits, but there are some things where we will partner. For example, we partnered with other groups to help us build our health games and Humana Fit app. We really look at every situation and determine whether or not its something we want to deliver quickly, and do we have the core  competency to achieve that. So its truly a combination of both strategies.

BTE: One thing I encounter a lot are entrepreneurs with great products that would be great potential partners for Humana, but they don’t know how to engage you guys, so my question is how do they engage Humana for a special partnership in the areas that don’t fit into your core competencies? How do they know what particular expertise or technologies Humana is in need of?

Julie Kling: We actually have a strategic vendor management process and they can reach out to me and I can connect them into that process and let them know how we are doing and what our roadmap looks like and whether or not we really have that need. The needs we have a really driven by our overarching strategy and goals, so we have a process that brings people in. I can tell you, I get calls, emails and invitations every day from potential partners, but sometimes it takes time and effort to figure out where there is alignment and how that relates to the needs we have.

BTE: What is the next step in Humana’s mobile strategy? Do you have any new products in the pipeline or near-term goals?

Julie Kling: I think that as we continue to shift toward becoming a well-being organization you will see more activity from us on that front. One example is a company we recently launched called Vitality, which is a well-being and rewards program, and we will be seeing more and more mobile capabilities that relate to Humana Vitality, help people make good food choices and exercising. We want to move further into managing chronic illness and are going to be testing out biometric monitoring so we can have real data we can use to help them manage their conditions and work with their doctor to manage their conditions, which is really exciting and unique.

You will see us moving further into the sales cycle with the launch of a feature called “click to speak to an agent” which allows potential members to go to our mobile site and click on a button which connects them to an agent and enables them to see if they want to purchase any of Humana’s products or services. We are also going to start enabling potential members to get a quote through our mobile site by answering a series of questions to determine precisely what the costs would be for one or more of the products we offer, be it medical, or vision, or dental, all the information needed to make informed decisions about their coverage.

BTE: How do you get potential customers to visit your mobile site to get quoted for Humana’s services?

Julie Kling: We are doing a couple of things. First, we see a lot of people come to our site directly, many of whom are not Humana members but are just interested in finding out whether Humana’s products and services are potentially valuable and what they would cost. We are also testing out a text messaging campaign where we will do radio ads and those radio adds will allow listeners to get a short code which they can text in to get additional information and will be able to talk to a representative and purchase our insurance products. So we don’t really buy search engine ads, but we do use radio ads and we do see a lot of direct traffic.

BTE: So you guys have both native apps for all major platforms as well as an HTML5-based mobile web app?

Julie Kling: We do have an HTML5 mobile website, and I would describe what we offer as hybrid apps or wrapper apps where we use the same capabilities you find on the mobile website and we have enhanced it with some of the native capabilities you have on iOS and Android. You can think of it as a mobile frame that goes around the mobile website that has the same HTML5 capabilities which enables us to quickly deliver what we have on the mobile website to an app, which is a great way to ensure you are being efficient about your development.