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Why everyone wins when healthcare meets gaming technology

Health professionals can learn from the world of gaming: The principles that make games work can also help people focus on their health.

Overview

While patients know lifestyle has a huge impact on their health—70 percent of all healthcare costs are linked to behaviors—nudging them towards change is difficult. People assume the worst will not happen to them and the future benefits of a healthy lifestyle are too far off to convince them to act today.

How then, to get more people to engage with their health? In a recent Accenture pilot study, more than 5,000 participants demonstrated that gamification is a useful means to help change people’s behavior. More than 70 percent of those in the study, which challenged participants to walk 10,000 steps a day, reported they had done more exercise over the program.

The program worked because it applied many of the principles seen in gaming. Participants were set clear goals and they received instant feedback on their progress. They were offered incentives and rewards to post more steps, and they were able to compete with other participants in the study. This community experience, offered through social networks, was particularly important: the more people shared their scores, the more engaged they became.

Background

Gamification in healthcare may simply mean applying the principles of gaming, as in Accenture’s 10,000 steps a day pilot study, or it is possible to work through actual games. One established example is HopeLab’s Re-Mission1, a video game aimed at adolescents and young adults with cancer. Playing the game has encouraged these patients to stick to treatment plans and boosted self-belief. In other words, the game boosted their fighting spirit.

Working with a similar demographic, meanwhile, several U.S. school districts have responded to concern about youth obesity by encouraging children to play Wii Sports2, a game available on Nintendo’s Wii console which is controlled by the user’s body movements. Playing the game is physical exercise in itself.

Older patients are benefiting too. In Spain, the Basque Country Health System has built TeKi3, a platform that gives patients access to virtual interactions with healthcare providers. Though the platform can be used by patients of any age, it is particularly useful for older patients coping with chronic disease.

Citations:

1 HopeLab:
http://www.hopelab.org/innovative-solutions/re-mission%E2%84%A2/ (May 2013)

2 Nintendo:
http://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/1OTtO06SP7M52gi5m8pD6CnahbW8CzxE (May 2013)

3 Catherine Reilly, Irish Medical Times:
http://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/1OTtO06SP7M52gi5m8pD6CnahbW8CzxE (May 2013)

Analysis

Gaming applications and applications that use the principles of gaming encourage patients to engage with their health, whether for preventative or treatment-linked reasons, because they trade on wellestablished principles of behavioral science. The value of incentives, in particular, is clear in the way in which progressive healthcare plan providers are now beginning to structure their products.

Take the Vitality program4 run by the South African health insurer Discovery Health, where members earn Vitality points by engaging in activities relevant to their risk profile—visiting the gym regularly, say—and qualify for a status ranging from blue to diamond.

Discovery recognizes the importance of both the social aspect and incentives. Members of the program can discuss their scores and status and compete against each other to move up the levels. In addition, Discovery offers a range of rewards for participation, such as discounts on flights and holidays, or cheap cinema tickets.

Citations:

4 Discovery Vitality:
https://www.discovery.co.za/portal/individual/vitality (May 2013)

Recommendations

The trend towards gamification in healthcare as a tool to help get people engaged with their health is growing. Although this is an idea still in its infancy, the early evidence shows it offers great promise, which is why Accenture is now making active investments in the field.

In practice, gamification in the field of health works best when several principles are reflected. There has to be a clear goal for the patient, as well as instant feedback on their progress towards that goal. There have to be incentives and rewards available to reward patients as they get closer to their objectives and the competition factor is important too.

This makes it crucial for the gamification process to be social – people need peers to compete with and they need a forum through which they can communicate with those peers, sharing ideas and indulging their competitive instincts. Social networks are an obvious example of how this might be achieved.