A year in review: my 2012 digital predictions (part 2)

Alex Butler

Healthcare Digital Marketing Expert

At the end of last year, Alex Butler wrote his six predictions for digital in healthcare in 2012. In this, the second of a two-part article, he reviews the latter of those predictions and compares them with what 2012 actually saw in the digital healthcare space.

Continued from ‘A year in review: my 2012 digital predictions (part 1)’

3. Games and gamification would join the mainstream

Even though this last year saw the annual Games for Health conference in Boston held for the eighth year, at the beginning of 2012 games as a serious tool in healthcare were a fringe concern heralded by a small group of medical professionals, game designers, tech business leaders, visionaries and dreamers.

There has undoubtedly been a lack of legitimate research in the area and to combat this, early 2012 saw the launch of the first peer reviewed journal simply titled ‘The Games for Health Journal’. It promises to contain studies about the research, development, and clinical-application of games.


“Throughout the year games and game technology were one of the dominant forces in the digital healthcare conversation.”


Throughout the year games and game technology were one of the dominant forces in the digital healthcare conversation.

This interest was driven not only by real advances in the understanding of the direct impact games can have on health in pure form but also by the proliferation of mobile devices and gamification methodologies. Gamification in particular became a buzzword in 2012 and can be best described as the utilisation of game mechanics on non-game applications.

We start in In late January as it was announced that players of the online game Foldit had redesigned a protein that had stumped scientists for 15 years in just 3 weeks, with their work being published in the science journal Nature Biotechnology.

Admittedly, Foldit attracts a unique kind of gamer who enjoys obsessing over biological protein folding patterns and the game was developed by University of Washington scientists Zoran Popovic, director of the Center for Game Science, and biochemist David Baker. It works very simply, researchers send a series of puzzles to Foldit’s then 240,000 registered users. The scientists then have the job of filtering the results searching for the best designs and take those into the lab for real-life testing.

In a similar vein to Foldit, researchers created an online game in May to diagnose malaria. The game, which was developed by researchers from the UCLA Henry Samuel School of Engineering and Applied Science and the David Geffen School of Medicine, helps players distinguish malaria-infected red blood cells from healthy ones. It utilised an online crowd sourcing problem solving method and it was found that a small group of non-experts playing the game were collectively able to diagnose malaria with an accuracy which was within 1.25 per cent of the diagnostic decisions made by trained pathologists. When this support was combined with minimally trained health workers in resource poor settings it became a possible life saving innovation.


“…players of the online game Foldit had redesigned a protein that had stumped scientists for 15 years in just 3 weeks…”


2012 was also the year that pharmaceutical companies began to experiment with crowd sourced game mechanics with both Boehringer Ingelheim’s and Merck’s use of the platform Kaggle, which uses gamification to solve complex scientific problems. Boehringer wanted to use knowledge from the online scientific community to create a new model that will help its scientists accurately predict the biological response of molecules. The results of 700 teams and nearly 9,000 entries in three months were models that are as good, if not better, than the models that the academic community are putting together, according to the company.

There was a whole number of health applications that utilised game mechanics in 2012. HealthPrize and Mango Health are both medicine adherence applications that reward you for taking your prescription drugs, and Hubbub Health is a social health network that combines gaming, daily challenges, and a community to promote physical and mental wellness.

Cellnovo integrated a gamified diabetes tracking package with a mobile handset, web app, and insulin pump and the T-Haler was an asthma training inhaler prototype that, according to the creators, can increase proper inhaler use three-fold in just three minutes of training. We also witnessed a number of motivational game-based applications such as SuperBetter. It was created by Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken and probably the most recognized face in the games for change community. Drawing heavily from the field of positive psychology, SuperBetter was designed from the ground up not just to entertain, but to improve the resilience of and thereby improve and extend the life of its users. McGonigal decided to create the game after suffering and recovering from a head injury two years ago and there is hope that the application will enable people to recover from similar injuries in the future.

If the prediction was that games would enter the health mainstream then the BBC reporting that computer game helps rehabilitate stroke victims surely counts as positive example. The Circus Challenge game aims to help patients recover motor functions and has shown real promise and demonstrable success.


“…a small group of non-experts playing the game were collectively able to diagnose malaria…”

Suffice it to say, 2012 has been quite a year for games and healthcare and we haven’t even mentioned the first social game developed by a pharmaceutical company, with Boehringer Ingelheim’s Syrum helping people to understand the complexities of bringing a drug to market in a fun and social way. I can’t wait for 2013.

4. Social media will start to separate the winners from the losers in 2012

2012 was a massive year for social media with the rise of visual marketing through Pinterest and the huge purchase of Instagram and the IPO of Facebook on Wall Street. Things were not so dramatic in the healthcare space.

There is however a number of developments that point to the future and, scratching the surface, reveal a fascinating shift in the use of social media for healthcare. Has the execution of high quality social strategy begun to pay dividends for those companies leading the way? The answer to this question is still unclear but beginning to come into focus.

At the very start of the year an ePharma consumer study revealed trends around how people interact with Pharma with the headline statistic that “42% of online consumers think pharma companies should be Involved in online health communities”. Top patient and caregiver groups seemed to agree and the list included ADHD Caregivers, Bipolar Disorder Caregivers, Epilepsy Caregivers, Cystic Fibrosis Patients and Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients as the most enthusiastic.

Unfortunately in 2012, although we saw a move towards the socialisation of communication strategy in pharma the predominant direction was one of organisationally defined content being shared through highly controlled platform presences on Facebook or Twitter. This is certainly a step in the right direction but the open and transparent involvement in strong established communities is yet to be achieved.


“…Hubbub Health is a social health network that combines gaming, daily challenges, and a community to promote physical and mental wellness.”


As social media begins to mature as part of the digital and broader marketing and communications mix we witnessed less eulogising in 2012. This didn’t stop David Copeland asking in May ‘is Facebook poised to revolutionise healthcare?’ Although it was an attention grabbing headline some of the points were very strong, especially with social networking as being a way to end the isolated feelings patients suffer from. It was this general theme of connectivity to each other and not necessarily access to information that informed the social media healthcare debate.

This is especially true with regard to healthcare professional communities. Some of the most interesting developments came from the US. For example, Doximity, a social network with a low profile everywhere but the medical community which has now signed up 11% of all U.S. physicians. The network focuses on helping doctors communicate and work together in a secure environment to coordinate patient care better and faster. Their stated focus on medical mistakes and errors resulting from miscommunication was a refreshing and significant angle and exactly what professional networking tools for doctors can greatly improve.

Doximity further built on this when they launched iRounds in February. Touted as the twitter for doctors, the platform gives physicians a community to discuss cases, ask for second opinions and engage in spontaneous dialogue with peers in real time and at the point of care. Somewhere pharma could add real value to physicians themselves in the future.

Social media has become extremely big and at the same time focussed and niche. The tools that we all take for granted and expect for free will start to inform communication strategy across the pharma business in 2013 and will form part of my predictions for 2013 on pharmaphorum. It is almost impossible to imagine that a company that cannot engage in the social space can easily jump straight to crowd sourcing solutions to problems or engaging in patient communities. So although not pronounced, those who have made strides will start to reap the rewards.

Alex’s 2013 digital predictions can be viewed here.


About the author:

Cited as the thought leader for digital marketing and digital strategy for pharmaceuticals and healthcare Alex has overseen dozens of award winning projects including innovate digital sales solutions and pioneering social media projects always rooted in high quality strategic design with models developed by himself for both business focus and digital readiness.

Alex worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over a decade with six years at Janssen (Johnson &amp, Johnson) in numerous roles including Market Access, Corporate and Brand Communications, Marketing, Digital Strategy &amp, Social Media and finally as a senior lead in Janssen EMEA Strategic Marketing team with responsibility for Marketing Communications. He has most recently built the successful digital marketing agency The Social Moon as co-owner and Managing Director and now works as an independent digital marketing consultant focussed on the pharmaceutical industry.

Alex is also keenly interested on the impact new media has had on advertising and is an invited member of the prestigious Wharton University ‘Future Of advertising’ Global Advisory Team. He also works on academic projects with other academic institutions such as UCL looking at the impact digital media has had on society. He just about finds time to be a third of the world’s most popular healthcare marketing podcast ‘Digitally Sick’.

Alex’s twitter account


What advances in digital healthcare in 2012 were you most impressed by?