Innovating and improving health through games

Games have some of the highest expectations in mHealth, and entrepreneurs and technologists have some pretty grand expectations for transforming healthcare. 

About 10 years after the Games for Health project launched, a number of health game companies and inventors convening at the mHealth Summit’s Innovation Zone are offering their visions of what video games can do for chronic care management, lifestyle improvement and even end-of-life issues.

Much as mobile health apps in general are going through a second evolution, health games (many apps themselves) are just starting to get attention from mainstream American healthcare.

"People are going to have to start making some bets and winning," as Games for Health co-founder Ben Sawyer, co-founder the consulting firm Digitalmill and a speaker at the Innovation Zone, told mHealth News earlier this year.

Sawyer’s firm has worked with the American Hospital Association, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Humana on health game initiatives, and he sees many others dabbling in it. But he thinks health organizations need to more systemically embrace games as part of their patient engagement strategies to really harness the benefits of what developers are creating.

[See also: What to do on Sunday at the mHealth Summit.]

“They understand the concept, but they don't know how to implement it,” Sawyer said.

That’s at the same time that health games are organically evolving. "People are just doing this ontheir own," he said. "They aren't sitting around and waiting for a grant to come and fall into their hands."

Add the zeal of software and game developers to the growing capabilities and affordability of smart phones and tablets, and it’s high time to address huge problems in American healthcare: aging baby boomers with chronic conditions, inactive teens at risk for diabetes and obesity, medication inadherence, lack of motivation in personal health.

While Sawyer has a vision for health games being used widely, other entrepreneurs and technologists at the Innovation Zone are working on the ground to convince providers, payers, government health programs and individuals to use their health games.

The company LinkedWellness, for instance, is trying to bring a games-based approach to behavioral healthcare. Founded by former Internet marketing and biotech executive David Burt, LinkedWellness’ flagship product, SPARX, is a web-based fantasy game for mild to moderate depression that uses cognitive behavioral talk therapy — and does so virtually — to help young people learn to manage negative thoughts while improving positive thinking and problem solving.

SPARX’s name stands for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor, and with anxiety and mild depression considered common in teenagers growing up in an increasingly complicated, competitive world, Burt thinks the game and others like it could go a long way to providing the benefits of talk therapy without the costs of bringing millions of teenagers to regular visits.

Health games may even have the potential to improve what may be the most difficult topic to discuss, ponder and act on in all of healthcare: death.

The Action Mill, a design firm focused on late-life and end-of-life issues, created the game My Gift of Grace, dubbed as “a conversation game for living and dying well,” in part through $41,000 raised on Kickstarter.

Players pull cards from the deck centered on actions, statements and questions, such as: "Do you want to live as long as possible, or be as comfortable as possible?" and "What activities make you feel most alive?”

"Families, friends, who have known each other for years, have had deep intimate conversations don't know these things about each other, and we don't even know these things about ourselves," as Action Mill partner Rob Peagler, formerly of MIT’s Design Studio for Social Intervention, told the Philadelphia public radio station WHYY.

As medical advances allow individuals in countries like the U.S. to defer or altogether avoid contemplating their own mortality, Peagler sees games like Gift of Grace as a way to let people approach the issue in a more community-based setting and in the end to let people set their own priorities.  

Karl Ahlswede, MD, a cardiac surgeon and Action Mill consultant, calls the idea behind Gift of Grace “a very unusual sort of detour from the standard practice.”   

“If you approach a conversation about the end of life, it brings up a wall. If instead what you are doing is playing a game and talking about things or activities that are important in their lives and coming at it from the direction of letting family know about their desires, it bridges a gap,” he said, in a post on Action Mill’s website.

“Some people need a nudge.”

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