Health Apps Fit Into Two App Store Categories - Which one works better?

April, 11 2017

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Rowan Emslie
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Rowan Emslie

Last week I wrote about the troubles that pharmaceutical companies had had with the app market.

Healthcare is incredibly complicated (who knew!?). Vast regulatory frameworks, overlapping public and private oversight, conflicts between profit and non-profit incentives - healthcare is not as obvious a candidate for digital disruption as, say, taxis or hotels.

Figuring out how mobile can be a useful addition to such a complex melting pot is tricky. Looking at it from top down is overwhelming. There's just so much to deal with, where should you start? As ever, at Priori we recommend looking at what's out there, what's sticking and what's missing, before coming up with a strategy. Users will seek out apps that serve their needs. Perhaps the best thing to do is follow their lead.

Health apps come in two flavors

In the app stores, there are two different categories that capture health oriented apps: 'Medical' and 'Health & Fitness'. The former has gotten most of the attention from pharmaceutical companies but, in terms of both downloads and revenue, Health & Fitness apps are in control.

READ MORE: The complete guide to app store categories


Big Pharma isn't the only massive industry being outperformed by smaller competitors. The top grossing Apple App Store fitness app in the USA isn't owned by Nike or Under Armour. It is Sweat: Kayla Itsines' Bikini Body Fitness Workouts an app set up by Australian personal trainer and her boyfriend.

It is something of a phenomenon. The app followed Itsines' hugely successful Bikini Body Guide, a fitness plan beloved for its positivity and visible results. Bloomberg profiled Itsines last year, highlighting the 150,000 strong community of highly engaged women - "Kayla's Army" - who share their 'transformational' before and after photos on Instagram. This community has powered Itsines to dominance in the Fitness & Health category of the App Store.

 app store categories compared

Since it launched 507 days ago, Sweat: Kayla Itsines' Bikini Body Fitness Workouts has ranked as the #1 grossing Fitness & Health app in the USA 454 times. That's 90% of the last 16 months. During that time, it has grossed $17.8 million.

In the Medical category, the top dog is Epocrates, a medical information app designed to be used by physicians. In the past 507 days it has ranked as the #1 grossing Medical app in the USA 498 times - an even stronger showing than Sweat. But it is has only grossed $2.7 million despite it's practically uncontested stranglehold on the market.

Why is Fitness so much healthier than Medical?

One word: flexibility.

Complexity restricts how many markets Medical apps can target: medical rules, restrictions and licenses vary wildly from country to country. Epocrates is a good example: when doctors look to consult an app on how they should prescribe medication to their patients, they require deep, specific information. A third of disciplinary actions of US Medical Boards relate to improper prescribing practices. The information Epocrates supplies cannot be general tips and tricks because it cannot be wrong.

The misprescription of drugs is the fundamental cause of numerous hot button issues in contemporary healthcare. From prescription opioid abuse to the development of antibiotic resistant diseases to the byzantine cocktails of drugs senior citizens are taking with little understanding of how those drugs interact - prescribing is not a simple matter of doling out the best medicine for every ailment. Any app that seeks to solve this problem is necessarily limited to specific healthcare ecosystems.

Because it is aimed at physicians, the functionality of Epocrates is restricted. Accordingly, 96% of Epocrates' revenue in 2016 came from a single market (the USA).

In contrast, Fitness apps are free from regulatory frameworks and can target end users - people who want to get fit - wherever they may be. Sweat got 51% of its revenue from the USA during 2016. It has substantial revenue streams coming from Australia, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Mexico.

Looking at the daily rankings, Epocrates is ranked #1 grossing in two countries and ranked #2-#5 in another two; Sweat is ranked #1 in 18 and between #2-#5 in another 31. It's no contest.

Comparing Daily Rankings

Sweat With Kayla
Countries ranking #1
Countries ranking #2-5

The huge total revenue advantage Sweat has over Epocrates shows that multiple revenue streams are better than one. For the future, Epocrates could focus on building multiple versions of its product that can target new markets.

Long term gainz

More generally, Medical apps shouldn’t keep backing themselves into a corner. As I mentioned in the last post, many pharmaceutical companies produce apps that support individual drugs. These are apps with limited scope, designed for a short term marketing boost rather than as a genuine resource for users. The same goes with Medical apps that can only serve single markets: eventually, growth will run out.

Medical and Fitness apps are often conflated as ‘Health’ apps and are therefore seen as competitors. The former heal you after you get sick and therefore aim to be as short term as possible. The latter look long term by helping you to change your lifestyle. Pharma companies should see Fitness apps as an opportunity for them to reach the end user. They could create apps that combine workout and preventive medicines. Or they could partner up with existing successful fitness apps to serve end users in the short and long term.

After all, they are all serving the same goal: getting people healthy.

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