The hottest fitness app of 2016 wasn’t intended to be a fitness app at all. A week after Pokémon Go launched in July, it had an estimated 7.5 million downloads, reported MobiHealthNews. And on average, users were spending twice the amount of time engaged with the enormously popular app than they were on apps like Snapchat and Twitter. Using augmented reality, phone cameras, and GPS, Pokémon Go requires players to move around in order to capture monsters in real life.

In August, a 29-year-old man told the Baltimore Sun he’d lost 10 pounds in his first month of playing Pokémon Go, and had increased his social interactions as well. “I’m getting more active than ever before instead of sitting on my butt and playing Black Ops 3,” he said, referring to a military-themed video game. “I think it’s made my overall mood a lot better, too. It’s made me feel a lot more positive.” Could mobile gaming be the future of patient engagement in health care?

The key elements that attract users

The success of Pokémon Go isn’t about a single app. Rather, it signals the exciting possibilities for the future of apps that encourage healthy behaviors. “Modern medical providers are looking to technology for new ways to boost patient engagement in health care, track patient progress between visits, and achieve better health outcomes,” according to Samsung’s Insights blog. Gamification in health care may be the key.

In a report titled “Why gamification is serious business,” Accenture highlights seven key elements behind gamification: status, milestones, competition, rankings, social connectedness, immersion reality, and personalization.

“These elements make games entertaining and emotionally rewarding, and keep players coming back for more,” explains Insights. “The same strategies might also motivate patients to become more engaged in their own healthcare.”

Major insurance provider embraces gaming

Now health insurance companies are getting into the game. Earlier this year, UnitedHealthcare began offering a customized wearable device called the Trio Tracker that allows patients to receive financial rewards for achieving wellness goals. As one wearer described to U.S. News & World Report, the device buzzes if she sits for more than an hour, and trophy icons pop up when she meets her daily activity goals. She has lost 12 pounds, and completing the goals earns her up to $4 per day in health care reimbursement, which can add up to almost $1,500 per year toward her deductible.

The fact that a major national insurance company has embraced gamification in this way is a huge step for health care, say experts. “This is a cardiovascular prescription. What you are seeing in this announcement [of the partnership between UnitedHealthcare and device-maker Qualcomm] is the first breakthrough of wearables into this medical-grade arena,” Qualcomm Life chief medical officer Dr. James Mault told Forbes.

Challenges remain

While the success of some health-related apps and wearables is exciting, getting users to stick with them continues to be a challenge. Roughly 13 million Americans bought smart activity trackers in 2015, but one-third abandoned them within six months, reports Global Health Now, a newsletter published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

We’ve written before about the challenges of keeping patients engaged with digital health tools. The trick seems to be focusing on the behavior that is being encouraged – like exercise – rather than on the desired outcome, such as weight loss.

“Maybe the secret sauce is not trying to be a healthy app, but instead focus on a game that gets people off the couch, into the real world, with inadvertent health effects,” states Global Health Now in an article on Pokémon Go.

The future looks bright

Gamification in health care is in its early days, but growing in popularity. We’ve reported on how interactive patient education tools – including video games — are being used in hospitals, particularly to help patients with chronic diseases. We’ve also looked at exciting applications of virtual reality in healthcare settings to help patients in new ways, such as treating veterans suffering from PTSD.

As technology continues to improve, and as patients and doctors seek new ways to achieve the shared goal of better health, the future of health care looks brighter than ever.

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