By Sheila Watson
You have to connect with people where they are.
That was at the forefront when Dr. Susan Johnson sat down with her business partner, Rebecca Blackman Ramsay, to design a health awareness program.
“So much of what typically happens are short-term campaigns, and we wanted something that would have long-term sustainability, something where people would engage on a long-term basis,” says Johnson. “But it also had to be convenient.”
Creating awareness about health is second nature to Johnson. As the health promotion director at the Medical University of South Carolina, she has spent seven years fostering a healthy environment on the MUSC campus, directing the employee wellness program, and helping promote fitness policies and environmental programs, such as the Charleston bike share and the urban farm on the grounds of the university.
“I do a lot of community collaborative work, like the city’s wellness advisory board,” she says. “I’m fortunate to work with a great group of diverse partners.”
Naturally, that collaborative mindset became part of the design of the health awareness project.
“This app brings together all types of providers to offer consumers a unified, seamless experience in the palm of their hands,” says Ramsay. “We are creating an inclusive network of individuals, business owners and community leaders that share a commitment to well-being.”
The two thought long and hard about what the technology would encompass.
“This was my first foray into the technology world,” Johnson says. “In my work in health promotion, I know it’s about getting people to change their behavior to a healthier lifestyle, and I knew we needed to focus on marketing health. The thing is, in public health we traditionally miss the technology piece. I knew we needed to bring technology into our concept.”
They decided that convenience, saving money and not having to sort through a lot to find options were the key elements. They enlisted help from a PR firm to come up with the name vimcity – vim as in “vim and vigor” and city to indicate it’s local – and they hired a local tech developer to create a mobile app for them.
“For a lot of people, their cell phones are their social lives,” Johnson says, “so this was a way to get people where they are.”
Considering the plethora of apps – 2.8 million for Android and 2.2 million for iOS, according to Statista – they would need to find a way to stand out.
“There are a lot of apps out there focused on some type of behavior, and most are focused on one aspect of wellness, like nutrition or exercise,” Johnson says. “We wanted to move beyond the silos of wellness and focus on the whole picture of health and the community.”
The model they settled on was engagement – finding a way to engage all the stakeholders – and the app includes several elements related to behavioral change theory, including education, incentives, gamification and social connections.
“We’ve sorted out the things that matter to people, the things they look to when they’re engaging,” she says. “That’s where outcomes happen.”
The vimcity features include:
• Searching for fitness classes by time, current location or instructor and exploring new restaurants, retailers, studios, etc.
• Saving money and earning points by prioritizing healthy choices and being rewarded with cash savings.
• Staying motivated by inviting friends to class and sharing goals and progress.
• Lifestyle tracking with no check-ins required. Instead, the app will automatically sync a fitness wearable or use a smart phone built-in step tracker.
An additional pillar of the program is volunteerism, which Johnson says is healthy for both the community and the individual.
“We tend to become involved in our own problems,” she says, “but when you start to do things for others, it puts things in perspective and can be a great stress reliever.”
The user can earn credits through outreach programs on the app. Businesses can incorporate the program into their corporate wellness programs by purchasing memberships for their employees.
Johnson and Ramsay have prequalified everything on the app. Along with fitness and store information, the app is loaded with community resources, including parks, community gardens, trails and other amenities in the area.
Although vimcity is still in beta testing in the Charleston area, it will eventually expand to other cities.
“That’s always been the plan,” says Johnson. “We built this with the intention of making it available anywhere.”
Among the immediate plans are reaching out and setting the stage in Hilton Head, Charlotte, Greenville, and Nashville.
“We’ll start here and make sure it has everything it needs before we expand,” she says. “Then it’ll need a ‘champion’ in each city to guide it. Beyond that, the technology will take care of itself.”