“Mobile App as Bandaid for Healthcare” (Illustration by Jacob Dwyer)

Creating a Culture of Health

Design that Goes Beyond the Mobile Application


As a physician with a deep interest in digital health and as a mom of two kids with life-threatening food allergies, I have looked at a lot of mobile applications designed for the food allergy community.

I have yet to find the “killer app” for food allergies.

Some of the “best food allergy apps” are conceptually interesting but are completely underwhelming.

The bottom line is that pulling out the mobile phone provides little added value for me. These mobile applications create more work for the user, not less.

In our case, apps are a bandaid solution that don’t really solve the core health problems that we face as a family.

Isn’t this how healthcare tries to solve its problems? (Illustration by Jake Dwyer)

There are 3 key health issues for food allergies that to date a mobile application cannot address:

Issue #1: Safety

When I leave my kids in the care of teachers at daycare or school, can I trust them to not expose them to allergens? Will they know when to use Benadryl or the Epipen? Will my children still be alive by the end of the day?

Issue #2: Burden

As any food allergy parent will tell you, food preparation is the bane of one’s existence and it’s a ton of work. By now I have prepared thousands of bagged lunches over the course of my kids’ lifetime. And everytime it’s some kids’ birthday, I am the one making dairy, egg, and nut-free cupcakes!

Issue #3: Isolation

Kids with food allergies are often separated from the other kids at lunch as a safety measure, but leads to social isolation. It’s bad enough to have allergies, but it’s even worse when you are the only child assigned to your allergy table. :(

That’s why the posts by Steve Downs about the culture of health truly resonated with me. In part 1, he writes:

“If we truly value health, we shouldn’t be satisfied with working at the application layer. We need to express that value across the board — in our policies, in the products and services we create, sell and buy, in the designs of our cities and towns, in the experiences we create in schools and workplaces, and in our own individual choices…We need to build that value of health deep into the operating system of our civilization.” -Steve Downs

I can’t agree more! Don’t create the health application! Create the health operating system!

For one brief summer while was on a mini-sabbatical at Google, I experienced a compelling example of health as an operating system, which was completely liberating as a food allergy mom. I had enrolled the kids in a Bay Area day camp called Steve and Kate’s, which has developed an operating system for managing children with food allergies that was truly impressive.

The Nametag

Every morning at check-in the staff printed out name tags for all the kids attending camp. Not only did the nametag have information about my kids’ group leader, but it also listed the allergies and dietary considerations for the kids with food allergies, a really important safety measure to support awareness among the staff and other kids.

The Allergen Free Hot Lunch

Every single day, there was a hot lunch option that my kids could eat, despite the fact that they are allergic to dairy, eggs, and nuts. That has never happened for us before! For the first time, they could eat just like the other kids, and I didn’t have to cook (BTW, this was truly paradise for me!).

The Menu

At the AM check-in, a copy of the lunch menu was always available, with the allergens and dietary considerations clearly listed next to each of the food items. This allowed me to review the choices together with my kids and safely decide on a meal option for the day, reducing the uncertainty and worry that they might pick the wrong item for lunch.

The Queue

At lunchtime, the kids with food allergies always went first in line. This reduced the risk of cross-contamination at the buffet table and provided an extra layer of safety from the random kid who might accidentally sprinkle Parmesan cheese all over the pasta sauce. It was also awesome because it allowed my kids to feel special instead of ostracized for once!

I don’t want an app; I don’t want to look up ingredients; I don’t want to make special arrangements for food. This is what I want: an operating system that nurtures, protects, and values the health of my kids, just like every other child!

I tweet and blog about design, healthcare, and innovation as “Doctor as Designer”. Follow me on Twitter and sign up for my newsletter.

Click here for information about creative commons licensing. Disclosures: Unitio, Grant funding from Lenovo.

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