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While mobile healthcare tools have shown promise in driving desirable behavior in patients, they have been slower to catch on than many experts expected. In fact, the majority of mobile health apps have received fewer than 500 downloads. But the popularity of newer gaming healthcare applications like Zombies, Run! might help change that.
The wildly popular Zombies, Run! app encourages users to meet fitness goals while outrunning each other (and the zombie apocalypse). The smartphone app from gaming company Six to Start relies on two methods to motivate people to improve their running: sophisticated storytelling and small doses of gratification. Not by coincidence, these are the same tools videogame developers employ to keep gamers playing.
While videogames usually lead players to spend more time on the couch than the jogging trail, Six to Start and other developers use the social science behind games to encourage users to make better health choices. For instance, the Ayogo Health studio created the Monster Manor game to help children participate in their own Type 1 diabetes care. Kids learn about the disease while being motivated to exercise more and monitor factors like sugar and insulin levels. Integrated with the free BlueLoop tracking application, Monster Manor gives kids a daily reason to participate in their own care―one that is fun instead of onerous.
Monster Manor includes another key ingredient that can improve the gaming experience and motivate users: social connectivity. While organizations like Weight Watchers have long known social influence can be a powerful motivator for people trying to lose weight, mobile healthcare apps are using that idea in a host of new ways, from helping people quit smoking to better managing chronic diseases. In one of the more exciting trends, communities of people with mental health issues motivate each other to take positive actions such as journaling and staying on track with long-term medications.
While mobile games and social platforms present exciting opportunities, developers need to proceed carefully. The FDA has indicated it will regulate some types of mobile healthcare apps, particularly those related to medicine, but will exercise discretion in selecting which ones. And the sensitivity of health data makes potential security breaches a real problem.
The integrated, complex nature of mobile healthcare apps also means companies will be seeking a host of broader IT skill sets to develop and maintain them. Successful applications require sophisticated user experience designers and mobile application developers at a minimum, while skills in game science, social connectivity, and writing and content development will infuse the fun that breathes new life into consumer-oriented mobile healthcare applications. Just don’t tell the zombies.