Using dynamics from gaming to improve people’s health

Games lure people to make visits at specific times... can they help patients keep medical appointments?

This past October I attended the Health 2.0 conference, where there was a lot of discussion on the use of niche social networking sites to empower and inform patients, caregivers and families. There is a lot of debate about these communities, but one thing that’s not debatable is their popularity.

MedHelp, for example, has over 12 million monthly users. Patientslikeme – originally designed, by three MIT engineers, for patients with ALS – now has more than 100,000 members and 500 health conditions. Daily Strength has more than 500 communities, including breast cancer, depression, cystic fibrosis, divorce, infertility and parenting. WEGO Health, Alliance Health … the list goes on. Sites like TuDiabetes that let patients share and analyze their health data are starting to be tapped for public health surveillance.

The increase in sites has their owners coming up with new and innovative ways to draw members. One strategy is incorporating game mechanics or game dynamics theories.

Techcrunch, a leading technology media blog, posted an article last year about game mechanics and why they’re making location-based sites like Foursquare and SCVNGR so popular. The post listed 47 elements of a game dynamics “playdeck.” Three of the most interesting are the achievement dynamic, the appointment dynamic and the theory of disincentives.

SCVNGR's gaming "playdeck"

The achievement dynamic is the rewarding of points or advancing a member to the next level. Addiction Connect, for example, rewards members with profile badges when they contribute content to discussion boards, review a product and support other members. It’s easy to imagine offering similar kudos for patients who have met weight targets, taken medications faithfully, or stayed X number of days out of the hospital by doing diligent follow-up at home.

The appointment dynamic requires a community member to return at a certain time to perform a specific action. Farmville illustrates this dynamic: Close to 60 million of its 232 million members return to the site daily at specific times to water their digital plants and milk their avatar cows. Patientslikeme sends reminders to update their Mood Map at certain times per day. Members who do this regularly gain access to a mobile app and other resources.

There are plenty of ways healthcare providers can tap into these dynamics to foster health, both for children and adults. On Children’s Hospital Boston’s social networking virtual collaboration platform, application development specialist Dennis Gotto challenged his colleagues to come up with ways the hospital can encourage preventative care and appointment-keeping through mobile check-ins and point-awarding games.

In contrast to these positive approaches, some health sites utilize disincentives. Examples include losing points for inactivity or being ousted as Mayor on Foursquare. Sites like Stickk, where you can create contracts with other members to meet a goal, can cause you to lose any money you put up if you fail to meet your goal.

It’s exciting to watch these networking sites evolve from message boards and forums to real-time social interactions with meaningful contributions. In healthcare, their evolution gives us more opportunities to build relationships outside of a traditional office visit and greater access to rich user-generated information that can inform practice. Let the games begin!

Sarah Mahoney is a member of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Innovation Acceleration Program team as Community Manager of Children’s internal collaboration and social networking site.