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3/23/2012
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Social Gaming Helps The Medicine Go Down

Several imaginative mobile apps turn preventive health into competitive fun.

9 Cool Digital Health Products
9 Cool Digital Health Products
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To set themselves apart from the competition, many mobile health apps are adding gaming and social networking features to make the "medicine" taste better.

Take the fitness app HealthPer, which was just released. Now available at Apple's iTunes store and designed for iPad, iPhone, and iTouch devices, HealthPer can help you maintain a healthy lifestyle while sharing achievements online with friends.

Here's how HealthPer works: You choose wellness goals and get points for making progress toward those objectives. The member scoring the highest number of points in a month receives a prize, such as a mountain bike. There are other recognition levels, such as "gold badge" and "top of the game" awards.

[ There's almost no end to the amount of useful medical information available online. For seven valuable resources, see 7 Health Education Tools For Patients. ]

Members also are encouraged to share their progress with friends, family members, or healthcare professionals. They also can set up one-on-one challenges, invite others to share in their activities, and set up communities of their own around common interests.

Social gaming of all kinds is exploding, according to a 2011 survey. Twenty percent of females and 15% of males are social gamers; and, although the biggest chunk of this audience is 16- to 34-year-olds, some older people also like social gaming. Sports gaming is the most popular category, but healthcare is an up-and-coming field, to judge by the proliferation of healthcare gaming apps.

For example, there's a program called Skimble that brings together people who like to work out and engage in various sports. Designed for iPhones, Androids, and desktop usage on the Web, Skimble lets you track your activities and share them with other people who have common interests. Its screens resemble Facebook.

OptumizeMe, another social gaming app cited by Travis Good, MD, on KevinMD, focuses on physical challenges with other members. "Challenge a friend to run 10 miles or do 10 pushups?" Good asks skeptically. "I'm not sure how long I'd stay friends with these people, but I'm sure it holds appeal to others. It really leverages the social potential."

Other social gaming apps emphasize social networking more than the gaming aspect. For instance, Endomondo, designed for Windows-based smartphones, can help you lose weight or increase the amount of exercise you do. It also incorporates aspects of social networks to motivate users to be more active. According to a press release, "Users can send real-time pep talks to friends while they are exercising, compete against friends, challenge co-workers and share it all on Facebook or Twitter."

Susan Giurleo, Ph.D., a psychologist and consultant who blogs about social media at BizSavvy Therapist, told InformationWeek Healthcare that social gaming apps probably work best for people who are very competitive, goal-focused, and extroverted. "They want to be seen doing something that's socially acceptable."

Why do most of these apps focus on fitness and wellness, rather than modifying the lifestyle factors of people with chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension? One reason, Giurleo suggests, is that social gaming tends to appeal to younger people who don't have these diseases. But chronic disease patients do want to share their experiences, as shown by the large number of online communities for people with various kinds of conditions, she added.

The 2012 InformationWeek Healthcare IT Priorities Survey finds that grabbing federal incentive dollars and meeting pay-for-performance mandates are the top issues facing IT execs. Find out more in the new, all-digital Time To Deliver issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. (Free registration required.)

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