Future pharma: Making games work for pharma

Andrew Tolve explores how gamificationthe use of online games in healthcarecan boost adherence rates, improve marketing campaigns, and help train reps

A good game is hard to put down, as any kid (or parent!) with a PlayStation can attest.

People around the world spend an average of three billion hours a week engaged in online games.

In the US, upwards of 70 percent of households play video games on computers, TV screens, and handheld devices.

All this gaming can be used to good effect in the healthcare industry.

If designed properly, games can teach patients about diseases, prevention, and treatment in a fun, engaging way.

They also can improve self-confidence and motivate healthy behavior before diseases appear.

The challenge with healthy behavior is that you dont see an immediate impact, says Esther Dyson, an angel investor in Health 2.0 companies, firms using new technology in healthcare.

But with games, you can get rewarded in the short-term for healthy long-term behavior. Its a great motivational tool.

The beauty of games is that you can target specific behavioral outcomes and at the same time keep it fun and engaging, adds Robert Tate, director of communications and marketing at HopeLab, a nonprofit that develops innovative solutions to improve the lives of people with chronic illness.

Healthy games

In 2008, HopeLab introduced Re-Mission, a video game that allows young cancer patients to fight cancer cells in a virtual world, all the while learning about cancer and getting inspired to overcome it.

As the pharmaceutical industry searches for innovative marketing models and new ways to build value and loyalty with stakeholders, gaming solutions like Re-Mission are a powerful option to consider.

Numerous companies in the healthcare arena have introduced games with a healthy purpose.

Humana, one of the largest health insurance companies in the US, runs HumanaGames, an online forum filled with dozens of healthy games for kids and adults.

Trainer, for example, lets teenagers care for a creature with dietary and fitness needs, thereby instilling an awareness of dietary health in the caretakers.

A second forum for healthy games is Playnormous.com, a website where children, parents, and teachers can learn about health through interactive competition and gaming.

On the diabetes front, the National Institute of Health offers Escape from Diab, a game about escaping from a city overtaken by junk food junkies, and Kaiser Permanent offers a similar game called SnacktownSmackdown.

I cant think of a better way to engage kids in their own health than with games, says Lisa Suennen, co-founder and managing member of Psilos.

Generally, kids are either really sick and have to think about health all the time, so this stuff is misery, or theyre too young and naive to think about mortality. Games can make these topics fun for them, no matter their situations.

Tate says that Re-Mission proves this point. In extensive outcome studies, HopeLab has found that patients who play the game begin to look at their treatment in a new, more hopeful light.

We see this amazing attitudinal and motivational shift, he says, where chemotherapy goes from being the thing that makes you feel sick to being part of your arsenal, part of your weaponry in the fight against cancer.

HopeLab has distributed more than 175,000 free copies of Re-Mission to 81 countries worldwide.

Integrated games

Adults, of course, are less likely to bury themselves in video games than kids.

So a second cohort of companies has started to take the essence of game dynamics and integrate them into programs to increase engagement and effect desired behaviors. Called gamification, this a hot concept among Health 2.0 companies.

Switch2Health lets users track and upload their daily exercise and gives them points based upon their activity. With enough points, users can redeem rewards from participating businesses.

Contagion Health has launched IMoveYou.com, which lets users motivate friends by posting challengeslike Andrew Witty will do 25 pushups today or Andrew Tolve will be a total slacker and do nothing todayon their Twitter pages or Facebook walls.

If you give people money, it often messes up their mentalities and encourages cheating, says Dyson. But if you challenge people and reward them for good behavior, it gives them self-esteem.

MedRewards, another Health 2.0 start-up, is working on the equivalent of a frequent flyer program for healthy behavior, where members get points if they regularly participate in healthy behaviorslike going to their gyms a certain number of times per week, eating healthy foods for a certain percentage of meals, and taking medicines on time.

HopeLab is active on the gamification front as well. The organizations newest product is Zamzee, a platform that rewards teens for physical activity.

Participating teens get activity meters that clip into their pockets and monitor their movements and exercise.

The more they move, the more points they get, which enables them to spiff up their online Zamzee social media profiles and buy cool products from participating vendors.

The great thing about integrating games with social media is that it becomes infinitely scalable in a way that other interventions and approaches are not, says Tate.

HopeLab has yet to announce how much Zamzee will cost, but it will begin to distribute the solution in 2011.

Pharma opportunities

Some pharma companies have already dipped their toes into the gaming world.

Bayer, for instance, has launched DIDGET, a game that motivates kids to manage their diabetes; Genentech supports the latest version of Re-Mission.

But theres plenty of room for more involvement.

Pharma companies can integrate games into their marketing campaigns to attract more interest and to increase understanding among patients and physicians.

Likewise, games can address the adherence problem.

IQ, the innovation lab of GSW Worldwide, has launched Avatar Alerts, a game that rewards points based on how quickly patients respond to mobile alerts for taking medicine. (For more on the use of games to improve adherence, see When it comes to adherence, patients just wanna to have fun.)

Pharma can embrace this game or develop others to keep patients refilling their scripts.

Fundamentally most pharmaceutical companies are really about the social component of improving health and saving lives, says Tate.

The public doesnt always see that, but games can give pharma a second chanceto align themselves with patients sense of health, well being, and fun.

Furthermore, pharma can use games to help train medical professionals and build good will toward brands.

Burncentertraining.com, Brain stimulation, and Blood Typing are all examples of games that physicians use to become more adept at their professions.

Finally, pharma can leverage games to train their internal field forces.

Concentric Rx, a healthcare marketing agency, has developed Rep Race, a role-playing video game that throws reps into the thick of an office environment.

At this point everyone knows the game, says Stacey Chang, strategic lead for consumer health and medical products at IDEO.

Physicians know how pharma reps work, patients know youll advertise on TV. Its important for pharma companies to change the game and realign themselves with the real needs of people. Embracing games is certainly one way to start.

(For more on the influence of technology on sales techniques, see Pharma goes mobile: Making the most of the app opportunity and Will the iPad kickstart a pharma sales and marketing revolution?.)

For more on gamification and sales, join the industrys other key players at Sales Force Effectiveness USA from May 17-19 in New Brunswick, NJ.

For more on gamification and adherence, check out Patient Adherence, Communication & Engagement Europe from May 31-June 1 in Berlin.

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