Business of Well-being

Leveraging Digital Technology to Create Healthy Habits & Impact Community Health

Now, more than ever, digital technology is playing a vital role in how we live our daily lives, including how we manage our health. According to the Pew Research Center, the use of mobile technology is on the rise with 91 percent of Americans owning cell phones, 56 percent of which are smartphones.

Cell phones and other mobile devices have become a convenient tool for daily wellness. In fact, 1 in 3 cell phone owners have used their phones to search for health information. Latinos, African Americans and people between the ages of 18-49 are more likely than other groups to access health information on their mobile devices. Additional research also shows that nearly a quarter of low-income adults in the U.S. own smartphones and regularly access the internet on a mobile device.

This data shows that digital technology can serve as a powerful tool to improve health outcomes at both the community and individual level.As a physician and president of the Aetna Foundation, I have seen first-hand the impact that digital technology can have on improving health.

Unfortunately, disparities in health care and limited access to preventative services remain an ongoing challenge impacting our most vulnerable populations. Digital health technology can serve as a powerful equalizer for improving health education and access to care among all communities.

It offers a convenient and cost-effective way to reach people where they are spending time - at school, church, in neighborhoods and on-the-go. The Aetna Foundation is committed to supporting technological innovations that make maintaining and improving health easier and more accessible for people across the country.

Cultivating Community Wellness

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease and diabetes are two of the top 10 leading causes of death for African Americans. Additionally, while African Americans are four percent more likely to experience high blood pressure, they are ten percent less likely to have their blood pressure under control than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

There is a strong need for innovative solutions that will empower these underserved and minority populations with tools and information that allows them to take charge of their own health. At the Aetna Foundation, we support many initiatives that are already reaching communities and impacting positive health changes.

All of the organizations that we support must meet strong evidence-based criteria, including: projects that have the potential for positive societal impact; sustainable projects that are able to demonstrate scalability; digital health programs that utilize available evidence such as health care data or population health data; and digital health support built upon a solid foundation of applicable or behavioral theory and grounded in research.

For example, Text4Wellness, an organization working to improve health and wellness outcomes for African American women between the ages of 19-55, recently launched its program to connect ministers and ministries to offer health programs in three communities - Cleveland, San Francisco and Atlanta. Text4Wellness is one of the first programs to leverage text messaging as a way of communicating health wellness prevention messages within its targeted demographic.

This grassroots approach utilizes existing technology to reach individuals when they are most open to change within their communities to help create a positive health impact. Another project created by the Washington University School of Medicine will utilize a tablet app called Zuum in low-income and underserved communities to determine the benefits of a personalized health risk assessment tool.

This twelve-month pilot program will assess the feasibility, generalizability, and potential benefits of the app into multi-state, diverse clinical care settings in urban St. Louis, MO and rural Illinois. Likewise, the American Association of Diabetes Educators Education and Research Foundation created a mobile application called the Diabetes Goal Tracker to help support individuals with diabetes.

The mobile application focuses on the evidence-based principles of diabetes self-management education (DSME). The app has the potential to expand ability of DSME to support people with diabetes in their daily lives, including populations disproportionately impacted by diabetes. These are just a few ways that organizations are utilizing the power of technological innovations to help create positive health outcomes in communities across the country.  

Through these programs and many others, individuals are now able to utilize digital technology and mobile applications to create positive outcomes in their day-to-day lives. By supporting these types of innovative technologies that empower individuals to meet their personal health and wellness goals, the Aetna Foundation is helping to build healthier communities, a healthier nation and a healthier world.

What You Can Do Today

With this rapid increase in digital technology solutions, how can you pick the best options to meet your personal health and wellness goals? Are there ways to identify which apps are best or most helpful? Here are five quick tips to help guide you when choosing the health technology that best fits your personal lifestyle.

1. Find Technology that Fits You: Find the form of communication and type of technology that works best for you. Whether you start to email with your doctor or download a fitness app that tracks your workouts, ensuring the technology fits easily into your daily life will help increase your overall usage and create positive health outcomes.

2. Use Evidence-based Technology: To help ensure positive health outcomes, make sure the application or technology you are using is evidence-based. Evidence-based technology utilizes a medical professional's expertise with scientific evidence as well as the perspectives of the individuals using it to improve their health.

3. Find Support in Friends or Family: Utilizing a support system of family or friends will help you stay on track with your health goals and therefore will help improve outcomes.  It is important to have someone to support you during the process of making health changes in order to help keep you motivated over time.

4. Know Your Family Health History: Have an honest conversation with your family members about their health. Being knowledgeable about any existing health issues that run in your family will help you to identify and monitor your health risks.

5. Ask for Help: To help you meet your health goals, talk to your doctor about the types of technology and applications they recommend using for optimal health outcomes. As part of our commitment to leveraging technology to impact public health, the Aetna Foundation recently announced $4 million in grants to help people across the country utilize digital and mobile technology innovations to improve their health.

About the Author

Garth Graham, M.D., M.P.H., is the president of the Aetna Foundation and former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during both the Bush and Obama administrations. He holds an MD and Master's in Public Health from the Yale School of Medicine and the Yale School of Public Health. To learn more, visit:

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