Should Health Plans use a Responsive Web Portal, a Mobile App, or Both?

There are now officially more people who own mobile devices than there are people who own desktop or laptop computers. In 2018, 77 percent of American adults had smartphones, including 46 percent of seniors. That means your members want to connect with you via their mobile devices.

And that’s why your health portal needs to be mobile first—because if it doesn’t provide a good mobile experience – it’s not serving the majority of your members.

When creating a “mobile-first” health portal, you can use responsive design to make your website adapt to any device your members use to access it, or you can use an app where the entire experience is designed for mobile.

So what’s the difference? Is one better to have than the other? Before we answer those questions, let’s first look at their similarities.

What do they have in common?

Responsive design and mobile apps are both intended to create a better experience for your mobile users. And they both work in tandem with other engagement tools, such as text messaging.

Here’s why those things matter.


When your web-based health portal doesn’t use responsive design, it’s difficult to navigate on a mobile device. Instead of resizing the page to fit your members’ screens, the page displays at its full size, forcing them to scroll sideways to see the full width of the page, and pinch and zoom their screens to read the text and follow your links and buttons.

It’s an incredibly frustrating experience and most people aren’t willing to put up with it. Seven years ago, Google found that 50% of mobile users said that “even if they like a business, they will use them less often if the website isn’t mobile-friendly.” That percentage has likely increased significantly since then, as the world has become even more mobile-first.

So if you want people to actually engage with your portal, it’d better work well with mobile devices.

Text messaging

Many health plans are starting to take advantage of text messaging. Using a combination of demographic data and your members’ medical records, you can create automated messages that prompt members to schedule appointments, fill out forms, take actions in your portal, and ultimately close gaps in care.

It’s a valuable engagement tool, but it’s only effective if your portal uses responsive design, or if you have a mobile app—because people only read text messages on their mobile devices. And that means your links need to send people to a mobile-friendly portal.

When your texts include links to your portal you’re making it easier for members to take the desired action. But if the site you send them to isn’t mobile-friendly, you’re setting them up for a bad experience, and that’s going to reflect poorly on you.

Should you use responsive design?

Responsive design should be the default for any web-based property a health plan creates. Mobile devices are already the main way people access the Internet, so if your site isn’t mobile friendly – no matter how “well-designed” or “intuitive” it is – it’s not going to feel like either of those things to your members, and they’re going to use it as little as possible.

For health plans that want to engage their members and remain competitive, responsive design is the bare minimum.

Should you use a mobile app?

You don’t have to have a mobile app. Having a mobile-friendly health portal still lets you create a convenient, positive digital experience for your members, and it opens the door to using mobile solutions like text messaging. But mobile apps can also do a lot more to engage your members.

Here are two things that give mobile apps the edge over a responsive web-based portal.

Push notifications

When members install your app on their phones, it gives you the ability to send them push notifications: messages that pop up on their screens even if the app isn’t open. This can be a valuable way to send reminders or prompt people to take an action in the app.

Functionally, these work a lot like text messaging, but you can use them for less urgent reminders and requests, too. For example, push notifications can be a great way to point people to a relevant wellness article or video, or to remind them to fill out their basic information.


A mobile app is one of the best ways to engage your members because it can do everything a responsive website can and more.

Unlike a webpage, mobile apps occupy space on your members’ phones. Your logo and branding will appear among their other apps, reminding them that you’re just a tap away.

It doesn’t take long to access a website, but it takes even less time to open an app. And since your app is more visible than your website, your members are more likely to use it.

Cross off the rest of the items on your mobile engagement checklist

Whether you built your health portal in house or you went with a vendor, you’ve invested a lot in your digital engagement tools. So why not make them as effective as possible? Health plans that realize the value of member engagement should have both a responsive website and a mobile app, so that every interaction your members have with you is a positive one.

Check back later this month to get your free copy of our member engagement checklist to see what else you can do with mobile.