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Can Gamification and Other Cool Tech Improve Health?

health techGoogle defines “gamification” as, “The application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as a technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.”

The idea behind gamification is to take advantage of people’s innate desire to socialize, learn, master tasks, compete, record achievements, participate in self-expression, and have fun. The gamified technology uses rewards and competition to get and keep players engaged. Rewards can take the form of points, badges, achievement levels, progress bars, or virtual currency. Sometimes the rewards are visible to other participants or leaderboards are used to encourage users to compete with each other.

Marketers use gamification techniques to encourage buyer behavior. Educators use it to encourage learning and business leaders use it to improve worker productivity. Lately, we’ve even noticed political interest groups using gamified applications as a way to encourage civic engagement. But does gamification make sense in healthcare?

Health Gamification in Consumer Apps

So far, the application of gamification in healthcare has been related to consumer applications and devices. Some applications like Fitocracy and Dacadoo leverage gamification to inspire users to exercise more effectively and take steps to improve their overall health. “Players” receive points for activities they perform in their workouts and gain levels when enough points are collected.  Other gamified apps help users manage their diet, control stress, improve their sleep, and manage chronic conditions.

No discussion about health and gamification would be complete without a nod to Pokémon Go. Although not the first of its kind, the app that gave players the opportunity to “collect ‘em all” by taking a walk, caught on like wildfire last Summer Julia Belluz, writing for Vox, said it could be the “greatest unintentional health fad ever.” She explained that whether or not it was the developer’s intent, it got people moving. One study showed that players took an extra 194 steps each day they were using the app. That’s about 26% more than normal.

Barriers to Gamification and mHealth

While the use of gamified consumer apps to encourage healthier behavior is promising, the approach has been slow to catch on with healthcare professionals and practices. One major barrier is the name. The words “game,” “fun,” and “friendly” are not commonly associated with healthcare and some are reluctant to embrace the term or the approach as it may be seem to diminish the importance of health management. But as Glen Stettin, Express Scripts’ senior vice president and chief innovation officer, said in a press release, “Our experience has taught us that when patients are active participants in their health, they achieve better health outcomes.”

Concerns about mobile health applications extend beyond those that are gamified. During an American Medical Association meeting last year in Orlando, the AMA approved a list of principles to guide coverage and payment policies that support the use of mobile health apps and devices.

But the group acknowledge the significant inconsistency in the quality of digital health apps and devices. They warned both providers and patients that caution is needed.

“The American Medical Association (AMA) believes mobile health applications (mHealth apps) and devices that promote safe and effective patient care have the potential to be integrated into everyday practice,” in a post on the association’s website. “While physicians are optimistic about digital health innovation and its potential medical benefits, mHealth apps and device that are not safe can pose threats to the health and safety of patients. AMA policy acknowledges the need to expand the evidence base necessary to show the accuracy, effectiveness, safety and security of mHealth apps.”

Other Drivers of Patient Engagement

Gamification and mHealth will certainly be part of the future of healthcare. Anything that gets people more involved in the management of their own health improves outcomes, increases quality of life, and in the long run, reduces healthcare costs. Telemedicine is an approach that can be used alone or along side mHealth and gamified applications to make it easier for patients to take charge of their health. It improves access to providers for often neglected encounters like acute visit follow-up appointments, medication checks, and chronic condition maintenance. Like the other technologies we’ve mentioned, it aims to take the friction out of health management for patients.

No one technology or methodology is going to be the right answer for every person or every health goal. But these innovative and consumer-friendly devices and applications increase the pool of available tools for achieving optimal health outcomes in a way that is attractive and easy for people to integrate into their everyday lives. When health management is easy and fun, outcomes improve.