Don’t gamify healthcare — gamify health

tetris

There was a piece in Fortune earlier this month with which I strongly disagreed, on the subject of healthcare, technology, and “gamification”. The post centers around a health tech hackathon and, I think, in dismissing the promise of gamification, misses one of the most promising aspects of health IT. Here’s the gist:

Several months ago, I sat in on a case competition at Boston University’s School of Management. The event played out over two days, during which 15 teams of five students from B-schools all over the world — India, South Korea, Canada, but mostly the U.S. — pitched their ideas for a company, one that would revolutionize health care (the stated goal was particularly jargon filled: “to leverage information technology to transform global health care and create value”)…

Immediately, a theme emerged, and the theme was games. “How do we gamify health care?”… As the day wore on, one of the Merck representatives finally asked, in exasperation, “Why would you make a game out of taking a pill? This will never be fun,” which is true…

I happen to think this is a bit needlessly cynical with respect to drug adherence, but the point I want to make is different. The term “health IT” tends to conjure the thought of medical records and the efficiency of medicine more broadly. But one of the most promising areas in my mind, specifically with mobile technology, is in gamifying health.

If you look at what’s driving U.S. healthcare costs, a huge chunk is driven by diseases directly caused by poor health behaviors like smoking, overeating, and lack of exercise. As I put it in a post a little over a year ago:

Want to crack healthcare costs? Help at-risk individuals smoke less, drink less, exercise more and eat better.

This is where the potential for gamification lies. (If you don’t like the buzzword, call it behavior modification.) Think of it like this: using a doctor to treat the fact that you eat too much and don’t get enough exercise is a terribly inefficient health plan. You go in every few months, the doctor scolds you for not sticking to your diet and exercise regimen, you go home and don’t change.

The opportunity is to leverage the fact that we now all carry powerful computers connected to the internet with us at all times (in the form of smartphones) to nudge us toward better behavior. This is by no means easy! And for now it’s way worse than the alternative of relying on a mix of social support from family and friends along with willpower and attempts to form better habits. But is it out of the question to think that mobile technology can supplement those things?

Think about RunKeeper, the running app, or GymPact, the workout commitment app, in this context. They’re both, basically, turning fitness into a kind of game, and they’re both using different motivational levers to try and increase your likelihood of exercising. This kind of thing — the good behavior layer — is where the potential for gamification lies. Not in making it more fun to take your pills or to receive a medical diagnosis.

The area that excites me in terms of health technology isn’t revolutionizing medicine, as big a deal as that may be, but revolutionizing health.