Gamification – what is it and what does it mean in healthcare?

Games controller

Today, more than 180 million people accumulate frequent flier miles when they travel. These programs have motivated millions of people to pledge their loyalty to a single airline. Still, most people never cash in the miles they accumulate. In fact, less than 10% of miles are redeemed every year. Expert estimate that as many as 10 trillion frequent flier miles are sting in accounts, unused. Enough to travel to the moon and back 19.4 million times. That’s a lot if miles. So if they’re not actually using them, why are people so passionate about racking up miles? Because it’s a fun game.

Jonah Berger in Contagious

Value-based care is driving the healthcare industry toward more of a focus on prevention. Prevention of diseases like diabetes or cardiovascular disease, which often involves changing behaviour is an area where games show promise. Gamification is the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to everyday problems such as business dilemmas and social challenges. Good game mechanics keep people engaged, motivated and always wanting more. Encompassing a range of activities that many find disengaging or difficult to maintain, the topics of health, wellbeing, and other health-related topics are perfect for gamification. With clear behaviour to increase, gamification and the rise of smartphones have merged, meeting at an integral moment.

Healthcare can apply these same principles and techniques to improve provider collaboration, increase patient compliance, and drive down costs, too. The fact is, gamification represents a compelling and innovative way to help transform patient behaviours, promote healthy habits, drive compliance with individualised health regimens, and improve overall patient outcomes.

In the context of digital health, gamification is typically employed in health and wellness apps related to self-management, disease prevention, medication adherence and medical education-related simulations. Gamification apps are usually related to apps which integrate with a wearable technology, which can include devices worn/strap to the body to track biological information. However, it can be expanded to some elements in clinical trials, medical research and development, and apps that integrate with medical device, in the perspective of patient engagement.

Gamification diagram

Gamification is fundamentally a tool for motivation. In healthcare, it’s primarily useful for behaviour change – helping people commit to and stick with activities they know they want to do.

The basic idea is to reward ‘players’ for accomplishing desired tasks. It may also take advantage of natural competitive tendencies, pitting ‘players’ against each other or a standard metric. This could be exercising more, taking your medication regularly, or taking a series of steps associated with better recovery from serious illnesses.

Often the “healthy” decision is to make a sacrifice now for the good of later, but people aren’t naturally inclined to do that. Not exercising and eating junk food feels good in the moment but can have costly repercussions. That’s where gamification comes in. Games are designed to help raise people’s engagement in a way that’s more powerful than what has been done before. Gamification is more a process than a product, something to do in the long term to get results.

Businesses are investing more and more money in this. With increased spending on data capture technology, improved documentation tools, such as electronic health records (EHRs), big data and analytics, it’s no wonder that gamification has made its way to investors priority lists. Gamification to a physician can lower the cost of healthcare, as well as aid in compliance and adherence situations. To a patient, it can encourage healthy choices, influence behavior change, provide ownership of their personal treatment, and most importantly, provide the opportunity to self-educate.

Gamification drives patient adherence and is used to influence patient behaviour by constantly engaging with them. Gamified apps help users drive self-improvement goals ranging from weight-loss to general self-improvement.

The game tracks a user’s trending toward previously identified goals and outlines to-dos over time to achieve those goals. Though weight-loss is the most popular use case, the game has been known to drive success through building physical, mental, emotional and social resilience.

Gamification may be at the peak of hype right now. However, if gamified apps fail to meet business expectations due to poor design, it could be setting up businesses with unrealistic expectations of success. It is important that businesses evaluate their objectives and see how gamification can help, treat the audience, or in this case patients as players not puppets, and make their goals and business objectives overlap. From a game design perspective, users need to be motivated to play because they want to, not because you want them to, and it has to stay interesting for them.

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