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Games could be a better way to teach kids about their health

May 03 2016

The same formula that makes video games addictive may offer some breakthrough ideas that help children stay healthier.

Getting kids (and adults) to put down a video game is often tough because games are designed to be habit-forming. But what if we could channel that captivating quality and use video games to teach kids about their health? Imagine the possibilities for children with chronic medical conditions like asthma. It’s an intriguing idea for insurers, patients and health care providers alike.

In the health care domain, we struggle to get patients to engage and participate in programs that improve their health. Games may represent a better, more effective ways to do so — particularly for pediatric wellness and care management. Borrowing some lessons from video game designs may help us engage patients in ways that traditional approaches haven’t.

Traditional apps and games certainly bring some  potential risks — in particular, the excess “screen time” that professional pediatric organizations, community organizations and parenting groups are focused on. But what if we could turn screen addiction on its head? There may be enormous positive potential for interventions that use mobile gaming technology to help kids to improve their health.

the_health_systemHowever, there is enormous positive potential for interventions that use mobile gaming technology to teach kids about their health.

Asthma is a good example. The disease affects 7.1 million children in the United States and is the most common chronic childhood illness, according to the American Lung Association. Given how many kids love video games, it’s no surprise that game developers have been looking at how to use games to fight asthma for a generation. Twenty years ago, for instance, a Super Nintendo game called Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus was a pioneer in trying to use the engaging power of video games to teach children how to take care of their asthma.

A more recent game, Wellapets, teaches children asthma self-care as they take care of a virtual pet dragon with asthma. By using in-game rewards and achievements — and mini-games that borrow game play from apps such as the wildly popular “Fruit Ninja” — Wellapets offers an engaging, fun way for kids to learn about asthma attack prevention, the difference between rescue and maintenance inhalers, and how to avoid asthma triggers. It’s a good model for clinicians to consider.

Our goal is to identify the right ways to use games that are fun and compelling to play, and demonstrate a measurable and meaningful improvement in patients’ health.

At Aetna’s Innovation Labs, we’ve begun studying how the basics of gaming technology could be used to benefit members and patients, and looking at ways to gauge how video games perform through more rigorous clinical studies. The studies are important in convincing physicians and other health care providers to adopt population health management approaches that could include games or gaming elements that are designed to be difficult to put down, like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga.

Making health care game-like
It’s helpful to understand one of the basics of good game design. It involves building a “compulsion loop,” an element of gameplay that compels someone to keep playing a little longer. It does this by doing three simple but powerful things:

  1. Creating a repeated habit over time.
  2. Stepping through a sequence of activities.
  3. Rewarding certain activities, and in turn strengthening the “loop.”

In some ways, a game’s compulsion loop is similar to a sustained-release medication, one that doesn’t just rely on a single dose, but instead reinforces behaviors in a sustained, durable fashion. Used for health care, compulsion loops could be a powerful tool to teach and reinforce healthy behaviors — whether for asthma self-care or other medical needs.

The traditional way of educating people about their health is through talking, not gaming. When it comes to kids’ health, providers talk to parents and hope that they can convey meaningful knowledge and instruction to their children. But it could be more effective if we could find new approaches that can directly engage children — like games.

As an industry, we still have a lot more to do to bring games into the health care system in a meaningful way. But it’s clear there could be a significant opportunity to use games and apps with appropriate compulsion loops to teach patients healthy behaviors. Aetna’s Innovation Labs is continuing to seek feedback and evaluate clinical outcomes from real-world studies on apps and games. Our goal is to identify the right ways to use games that are fun and compelling to play, and demonstrate a measurable and meaningful improvement in patients’ health. If a health game is engaging enough, it could become a healthy habit that lasts a lifetime.

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