UnitedHealthcare is taking another step into the burgeoning mobile health care field with a new app that aims to help people tap into their own health care information.

The free app, announced Monday, is called "Health4Me." It lets users store their health plan identification card, find the closest hospital or clinic, get information on claims and benefits and keep track of deductible spending.

Nick Martin, UnitedHealthcare's vice president of innovation, research and development, said the app is meant to complement its work with other mobile applications that are focused on helping people reach wellness goals.

"There are individuals who want help navigating the health care system and just want access to this information," he said. "We see this as a platform and ecosystem that we're going to continue to develop and add capabilities that consumers will want when they're on the road."

Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare, the nation's largest health insurer, launched a website for mobile users in December 2010. It attracted about 270,000 visits last month, an increase of about 125 percent from a year ago.

But Martin said an app makes it more convenient for people to store some information "offline" in their phones, such as notes from doctors' visits, deductible balances or their ID cards.

UnitedHealthcare said the app is available to 26 million members who get coverage through the workplace. The company doesn't sell insurance in Minnesota, where only nonprofit organizations can be licensed.

Other national insurers, including Aetna, Humana and Anthem have launched apps with similar features.

A growing trend

Minnesota's major health plans, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, HealthPartners and Medica, have created mobile websites in recent years that provide on-the-go information, including helping members find doctors and clinics or access their health ID cards.

Medica has an app that compares cost and quality information on doctors and clinics for some common medical procedures. HealthPartners' mobile website, which gets about 15,000 unique visitors each month, allows people to see how long a wait they'll have at its urgent care centers or at the emergency room at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Blue Cross and Blue Shield is among the plans that allow people to use their smartphones to access a 24-hour nurse line.

About 44 percent of Americans own smartphones, up from 28 percent a year ago, according to recent Nielsen surveys. Insurance companies see the mobile market as a way to be in touch with their plan members around the clock, not just when claims get filed or glossy magazines get mailed out.

Reaching out to consumers

It's part of the industry's broader "consumer engagement" strategy, as consumers are being forced to take more responsibility for their health and for paying for insurance.

The mobile applications allow patients to know the balance of their deductibles, to know the prices of generic and brand-name drugs and to comparison shop among doctors for the best price and health outcome, said Steve Parente, a health finance expert with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

"Is this for everybody? No," he said. "But increasingly it's for people who are intrigued with the online experience."

The UnitedHealthcare app can be used on Apple's iPhone and iPad. A version for Android users is expected this spring.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335