Mobile Developers Challenged to Gamify Healthcare

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers $100,000 to game builders for apps that improve community health and patient care.

Ken Terry, Contributor

December 7, 2012

4 Min Read

10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare

10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare

10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) aims to take gamification to a new level by launching a $200,000 competition to build the best gaming app for improving individual and community health.

Applications for the contest must be submitted by Jan. 27, and the winners will be announced next September. The top prize: $100,000, with $50,000 and $25,000 rewards for the second and third place winners. The five top developer teams, to be selected in March, will get $5,000 each to build their applications. Developers can learn more and register for the challenge here.

This is the second RWJF cash challenge pegged to its Aligning Forces for Quality initiative. In that decade-old program, the foundation has provided grants to 16 communities across the nation to help improve the quality and value of healthcare. To meet the grant criteria, all of these communities now publicly report quality information on their healthcare providers.

In the first RWJF contest, held last year in conjunction with Health 2.0, RWJF challenged software developers to create a mobile and website app that uses the quality data in the Aligning Forces communities to guide consumers to make better healthcare decisions. The winner designed an app that helps users refine their Google searches to find the most likely diagnosis for their symptoms and then leads them to the highest-quality physicians for that condition.

[ To see how patient engagement can help transform medical care, check out 5 Healthcare Tools To Boost Patient Involvement. ]

The current challenge involves a much more audacious concept. RWJF has long supported games to promote health, but it didn't want to simply add to the "noise" in that space, said Michael W. Painter, J.D., M.D., senior program officer for RWJF, in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare. So the foundation decided to ask for a game that would identify ways to improve the healthcare system itself.

"We realize we're pushing the envelope with this games challenge," noted Painter. "We want to do something disruptive and see where it's going to go."

He continued, "The goal of our challenge is to get creative app developers working with game researchers to come up with a compelling game in which players collaborate and compete to improve the quality of community healthcare and community health."

While RWJF is giving the developers broad latitude, Painter envisions the winning game as something like "a geographically platformed game approach in which people have information at their fingertips, such as the Aligning Forces public report data." In addition, he said, the game might draw on other publicly available quality data, such as the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps of the University of Washington.

RWJF's hope is that if people start to use this information -- as well as cost data from the communities that provide it -- in a virtual environment, trends might emerge that could be useful in redesigning healthcare. However, Painter admits that consumers might behave differently in a game than they would in real life. "They might use price information differently or behave differently in terms of exercising or diet," he said.

Also, he admitted that most consumers don't know much about how the healthcare system works. Consequently, RWJF might entertain the idea of a game app designed for healthcare providers and other members of the healthcare community, he said.

However, the foundation also wants the games challenge to help consumers improve their personal health. "Early research consistently indicates that well-designed and well-implemented games can motivate and support prevention, lifestyle behavior change, self-care, clinical care, adherence to treatment plans, and self-management of chronic conditions," the RWJF announcement said.

There has recently been a proliferation of health-promoting games on the Internet and in mobile apps. Most of these games -- like mHealth apps in general -- focus on fitness and wellness rather than chronic diseases. For example, Healthper helps users maintain a healthy lifestyle while sharing achievements online with friends. Skimble brings together people who like to work out and engage in sports. And Endomondo helps users lose weight or increase the amount of exercise they do.

Clinical, patient engagement, and consumer apps promise to re-energize healthcare. Also in the new, all-digital Mobile Power issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: Comparative effectiveness research taps the IT toolbox to compare treatments to determine which ones are most effective. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Ken Terry


Ken Terry is a freelance healthcare writer, specializing in health IT. A former technology editor of Medical Economics Magazine, he is also the author of the book Rx For Healthcare Reform.

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