The Other Side of the Stigma Coin

Lately we’ve focused on discussing how providers can embrace the mobile technology world and we’ve been advocating for the use of mobile apps and electronic devices within patient care. Today I want to discuss the other side of that coin: patient stigma toward the use of mobile apps for sensitive issues.

A few days ago, I was talking with a colleague about an app that I thought was great. This app focuses on sexual assault, a sensitive topic which has received a lot of attention in the news lately. Although this app has many fantastic features, and I could see how it could be very helpful, it doesn’t have very many downloads listed in the app marketplace. Was it just poor promotion or advertisement, I wondered aloud, because this was a really well-designed and informative app? No, my colleague pointed out, it’s more likely that patients just didn’t want to have an app about sexual assault on their phone. They feel that the stigma of having the app on their phone is greater than the benefits of the app.

Stigma can create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and it can be especially devastating when it interferes with patients receiving the help they need. What could be so fearful and intimidating about this little app I saw as so useful? Well, for one, the app has the topic name on the icon in big bold letters. Who would want anyone to know that they were dealing with this sensitive issue? mused my colleague, and I could see her point. So, how do providers combat the issue of stigma when they find a really good app and want to recommend it to their patients? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Smartphones and tablets have the option of adding additional app pages to the home screen. So when you’re helping your patient install a desired app, show them how to add an additional app page where they can “hide” the app if stigma is an issue. *
  2. If you don’t have a specific app in mind, or there are several great apps available that give your patients the information they need, try choosing one that has the least descriptive name or icon.
  3. Many websites have mobile-friendly pages that can be bookmarked to a smartphone or tablet home screen to allow one-touch access to the website. The patient can give the bookmark any name they desire (e.g., App) and its own unique icon which can be as generic as the patient wants.

For those out there who are developing these resources, I also highly recommend choosing names and images that won’t stigmatize the user. Spending the time to test whether specific names and images are descriptive enough yet not off-putting to patients will definitely make it worth your while (and hopefully increase the number of downloads of your product).

* To do this, once the app is installed on the phone, hold the app’s icon until it begins to wiggle. Then drag the icon across the home screen until it moves into a new (blank) home screen page (you may have to drag it across several pre-filled home screen pages until you come to a blank one).

Jae Osenbach, Ph.D. is a research psychologist and subject matter expert with the Mobile Health Program at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Dr. Jae Osenbach