This content is part of the Essential Guide: Technology strengthening physician-patient relationship

Essential Guide

Browse Sections

Gamification in healthcare isn't just about playing games

Gamification in healthcare is gaining popularity as providers continue to look for creative ways to engage their patients.

There are a number of pilot projects, technology startups and other developers who are playing around with gamification in healthcare. It's not yet clear whether this approach -- mixing self-monitoring and entertainment -- is yielding the type of traction and adoption that will ultimately lead to sustainable patient behavior modifications and improved health outcomes. Still, I suspect there will be significant growth in this area over the next several years as more patients adopt a consumer mentality about their health and wellness.

For example, people using the Pact mobile app by GymPact risk losing money if they don't follow through on their commitment to exercise. The app requires them to set a personal goal to eat right and exercise several times each week. The users also designate a financial amount that they are willing to lose if they don't follow through on their promise. Those who faithfully exercise earn money that gets paid by those who don't keep their "pact," creating an ecosystem where some users are paying others.

We have only seen the beginning of how gamification principles will help patients improve their health.

The Pact app and its approach to improving health has some parallels to online gambling. Some people simply enjoy the entertainment aspect of online gambling, while others may have an addiction or are highly motivated by the desire to earn money. Similarly, there are people who are compelled to exercise and lose weight, while others are casually exercising to maintain an average level of fitness.

The concepts and principles of gamification are all around us, whether we recognize them or not. Many people are naturally competitive and like to compare themselves to others. That is why companies like to host walking competitions and measure their employees' performance and progress by giving them wearable activity trackers like Fitbits. This desire to compete is also why television shows like The Biggest Loser are so popular. So, even if you are not the type of person to spend countless hours on playful games like Angry Birds or FarmVille, we are all wired in a way to enjoy and to be motivated by the core principles behind gamification.

A healthy gamble


Accenture reported there are seven key elements behind gamification: status, milestones, competition, rankings, social connectedness, immersion reality and personalization. As consumers become more engaged with their own health, they will take greater responsibility for managing their own condition. People who have diabetes will feel the need to learn more about their condition, their medications, and how they can improve their self-management.

Those who are healthy can stay that way by becoming more knowledgeable about disease prevention, age-appropriate screenings, and maintaining active lifestyles. As people gain more knowledge and insight about their conditions, they will want to set goals, measure their progress against those goals, reach milestones, and compare their performance against certain benchmarks. If patients take these steps to be actively engaged in staying healthy, they will apply gamification principles whether they realize it or not.

We can't forget about those who enjoy smartphone games and spend many hours tapping on screens to play mind-numbing (but thoroughly entertaining) games. For these individuals, adding a gaming element to disease self-management could reduce their apprehension toward the medications and treatments associated with the condition. There are also examples of this targeted at children. Muppets Band-Aids incorporated a quick response code on the Band-Aids so a parent can scan the code with their smartphone to show an entertaining video to a toddler who just scraped his knee. When Kermit the Frog starts singing about feeling blue, will the child forget about his scraped knee? There is a more serious example of the Pain Squad iPhone app that is designed to help children dealing with cancer track their symptoms so their clinical care team can do a better job to manage their pain.

On alert for pain


Simulation games such as PatientPartner are aimed at helping patients improve their medication adherence. By walking through a virtual role-playing game, patients can learn about the various clinical outcomes that may result if they fail to adequately manage their health conditions. Monster Manor is a game that engages young children with diabetes to be better at taking their insulin and to have fun while they are doing it.

We have only seen the beginning of how gamification principles will help patients improve their health. As healthcare providers, payers and innovators find successful ways to engage patients by applying gamification strategies to both children and adult patients, we will see a shift in population health that is driven by more engaged and motivated individuals. Gamification will motivate some patients to receive ongoing feedback, reminders and status updates about their progress in caring for their own health.

About the author
Joseph Kim is a physician technologist who has a passion for leveraging health IT to improve public health. Dr. Kim is the founder of and is an active social media specialist. Let us know what you think about the story; email [email protected] or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

Next Steps

How employees can improve HCM by playing games at work

Dig Deeper on Mobile health systems and devices