Will app improve public health?

HUDSON–Despite receiving official approval for a new online application, the Columbia County Public Health Department needs to focus more on getting its messages out to more people in additional ways, says Supervisor Michael Chameides (D-Hudson, 3rd Ward). He spoke about the situation August 21, a week after the full Columbia County Board of Supervisors authorized a contract for the app, which the public can access through cell phones or mobile devices.

Purchase of the app, which is called ThePublicHealthApp.com, was approved August 14, with six supervisors, including Mr. Chameides, voting against the contract. Though twice as many supervisors voted for it, the vote stands out because most resolutions before the county Board of Supervisors pass unanimously.

A state grant will cover the app’s $12,995 startup cost, and there might be additional grants to cover the annual $4,995 maintenance cost. Public Health Educator Victoria McGahan said she expects “a pretty quick turnaround” with the app all developed and ready to use in “a few weeks.”

The Public Health Department has “important information,” but it already has a website accessible by cellphone with the same information that the app will have, Mr. Chameides said. He said that proposals for the app didn’t specify how the mobile phone application would be better than just using the existing website. Otsego County already has the app, and “our public health website is better than Otsego County’s health department app,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Chameides said the app and the website will need separate updating because updating one platform will not automatically update the other without expensive “wrap around” technology. And the resources devoted to installing, maintaining and updating the app should not divert the Health Department from getting its message out by means that might reach more people more effectively, he said.

Even with the mobile app, the Health Department should also “develop direct outreach,” recommended Mr. Chameides, who has a background in communication. That outreach could include “a staff member who has more time to talk with people.”

Ms. McGahan said in an interview last week that the app will present information in a form different from the website, and that some people will find the app’s form easier to understand.

Supervisor Richard Scalera (D-Hudson, 5th Ward), who voted for the contract, said last week that he was told the app used in Columbia County “won’t be the same as in other counties.”

Ms. McGahan said that once the app is ready, people will be able to buy it through an Apple Store or Android App Store. One of the app’s features will give each user the option of receiving notices of new information as soon as the Department of Public Health releases it or waiting to get the information until he or she decides to load the app.

Mr. Chameides issued a release that reported on downloading Otsego’s app and finding it “clunky.” The release says that “content feels cramped, there isn’t a clear sense of information hierarchy, and there is an overuse of unrefined animation…. The Columbia County Public Health website provides a better mobile experience than the Otsego County Public Health mobile app.”

“My concern is that the county will spend time and money on the project, and people won’t elect to download it. I fear we won’t get enough downloads to justify it,” Mr. Chameides said.

“Research shows that to get the service, people don’t use the app. They go to the website or make a phone call,” said Peter Cipkowski (D-Hillsdale), another supervisor who voted against the resolution.

“The Department of Health does an amazing job, but they need to do more to provide services for people who need them,” said Mr. Cipkowski, adding, “The real reason I voted against it is that research suggests that the app isn’t useful for this purpose.”

Ms. McGahan said that with smart phone apps so ubiquitous, the Public Health Department app will give people what they are used to.

“It’s not costing us anything,” said Mr. Scalera. “It was: take it now or lose the grant. If it works out, fine. If not, after a year, we can just end it. So, why not give it a try?”

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