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Independent Health unveils app for members

Get ready to make your smartphone a partner in your health care.

Independent Health announced Wednesday the launching of a mobile application that will allow its 375,000 members to search for doctors and health centers, and get information about their health insurance benefits.

Health insurers nationwide have begun to turn to mobile apps as a new way to interact with customers.

Independent Health's MyIH app is available as a free download for Android, iPhone and Blackberry devices.

Members can use it to securely view their benefits, carry an electronic version of their health plan ID card and locate medical services, including doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and urgent care centers.

"When we thought about how to do this, we pulled back and asked ourselves how we can help people whenever or wherever people need it. Mom and dad are at the soccer field and want to local a doctor -- that sort of experience," said Tom Kingsley, vice president of digital experience and member operations for Independent Health.

The virtual ID card will be convenient for members who are out of town on business or vacation and college students who are away from home, according to the insurer. The benefit information will include such items as co-payments and coinsurance, benefit limits and coverage.

Smartphone use is growing, with about 48 percent of Americans using the devices as of January, a Nielsen survey says.

As smartphones become a part of more people's everyday lives, health insurers see an increasing role for using the devices to provide information to members and receive information from them. The health care sector may be the most promising new growth channel for mobile apps, according to a recent report by consultant Deloitte LLP.

Health plans elsewhere that have announced mobile apps in the last year or so include Humana, United Healthcare and Kaiser Permanente.

Kingsley said the current mobile app constitutes a "small first step."

He anticipates other services, including reports on the status of claims, wait times and balances on health-related flexible spending accounts. In addition, the technology exists to have members monitor weight, blood glucose and other measurements, and transmit the data to their physicians.

"We're still trying to figure out which apps will be the most effective," Kingsley said. "First, though, we want to be brilliant at the basics."

Despite the best intentions of health plans, experts say mobile phone users should consider privacy and security issues.

"The further away we get from face-to-face interaction, whether on the computer or through a smartphone, we tend to let our guard down about security and privacy," said Jeffrey J. McConnell, a Canisius College computer science professor. "Mobile technology is opening up easy access to information we're going to want. But we shouldn't be lax about sharing that information."