Gamifying pharma

Andy Stafford

Nitro Digital

In this article, Andy Stafford discusses the buzz word of the moment – gamification – looking at examples of gamification within the pharma and healthcare industries and how patients can benefit from using these digital and social apps.

Okay, so what do I mean by gamifying pharma? The message I would like to convey is that the pharma industry will benefit massively by incorporating ‘gamification’ into its digital strategies. Gamification is a buzz word right now, there’s no doubt about it, so inevitably there are detractors who argue, rightly, that you can’t just add some badges (for instance) to the process to improve the digital experience. But done right, its potential benefit is huge.

So, what is ‘gamification’?

For ease, I’ll paraphrase Wikipedia’s definition1 here, gamification is the use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics within digital assets to enhance non-game contexts in order to encourage people to adopt them, and to influence their use. The technique can be used to encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring.


“…the pharma industry will benefit massively by incorporating ‘gamification’ into its digital strategies.”


Well, nobody could say that gamification, if realised, does not have interesting and potentially far-reaching benefits for the health of patients to engage and educate.

What does gamification look like, then?

Popular established gamification techniques include badges, leaderboards, and progress status, virtual currencies, combined with social communication (competitive or collaborative) typically within a story. Regardless of the mechanics employed though, first and foremost it is essential to understand what is going to motivate your users sufficiently to change their behaviour.

Gamification is distinct from video games (from which the idea was conceived) which are already being used in pharma, scientific research, the military, education and beyond to help educate, train and rehabilitate often with compelling results. However, whilst different I’m going to use the two concepts interchangeably because the potential benefits for our purposes here are the same, increased patient wellness through the application of games and game mechanics to train, educate and rehabilitate patients. And by patients, I’m talking about everyone really, those that are patients and those that will be.

The Lancet, in a recent article2, asserted that physical inactivity causes 6-10% of deaths from major NCDs (non-communicable diseases), such as type II diabetes, breast and colon cancers and heart disease. The research critically, but not surprisingly, also linked exercise to mental wellbeing. Exercise fosters everything from improved sleep patterns and reduced stress, to stronger relationships, social connectedness and a sense of purpose and value. So, in a nutshell if you can motivate people to do more exercise (something they may find boring or difficult) you can, in one fail swoop, improve health, happiness and reduce the healthcare bill.


“…increased patient wellness through the application of games and game mechanics to train, educate and rehabilitate patients…”


The health and wellness space is really leading the way in (often mobile) gamified health, with business examples that include ‘Massive Health3’, ‘Ginger.io4’, ‘SuperBetter5’, ‘Fitocracy6’, and a more flippant, but for me most exciting, application of them all, ‘Zombies Run!7’. Zombies Run is an ultra-immersive running game for your mobile where the story is delivered through your headphones to help you to build your survivor base with the (virtual) items you collect on your run, whilst evading hoards of virtual flesh eating zombies. For me this is genius because it ties my actual goals – to run further and faster – with a set of virtual goals in a story that engages me to increases my application and mastery of the task (running).

Can gamification improve disease management?

But I’m reasonably motivated already, so the question is really if gamification could be applied effectively to better disease management? Truly outstanding examples are currently few and far between, mostly because the concept is relatively new and those supplying the solutions have dipped their toe rather than fully immerse the patients into the experience. However, the University Health Network of Toronto has shown that by combining the use of mobile app with gamification to incentivise responsible Diabetes management, a substantial increase was achieved in the frequency with which adolescents with type 1 diabetes carried out control.

This Diabetes app called, ‘Bant8’ rewards patients with codes that can be used to download songs, games and other applications free from the Apple iTunes store if they maintained a good BGM practice throughout the day. Furthermore, it can also check whether the adolescent has shared the results of tests with their parents and doctors. The gamification elements here are fairly rudimentary, but at the same time the project is relevant, targeted and successful, with the potential for much, much more.

Omada9 is another health start up ‘app’ that is specifically targeting people with pre-diabetes. By combing the power of relationships (it’s online and you’re connected), with data collection for evidence based results which can be plugged back in the focus is really on the patient. The trick, whether we’re talking about adherence to medication or changing established bad habits, is to tie in rewards that are meaningful whilst helping patients reach their goals. If you think about it, it’s much harder to change decades of poor diet and lifestyle than it is to help keep a patient on track with their potentially life-saving treatment. In theory at least.


“Truly outstanding examples are currently few and far between, mostly because the concept is relatively new…”


There is an ever-increasing pool of gaming examples from within the wider scientific and healthcare world that demonstrate the benefit of gaming either undertaken individually or more importantly socially. These include Foldit10, Phylo11 and others in biological research, which have achieved some outstanding research results, the Nintendo Wii platform being used to help rehabilitee Stroke victims, and a pathology app, called ‘ImageJS12’ reportedly based on ‘Angry Birds’ to help its player pathologists draw conclusions. The list goes on, and will only get longer and more creative.

So, here’s an idea. Why not combine gamification into a digital phase 4 KOL lead study to help connect, motivate and coach patients to take their medication? It would be easy enough to enlist the support of your KOLs once they recognise the benefit of collecting the real-world data. Let’s face it, most of the time they don’t know what patients are up to after they have prescribed the medication, or have a clear idea of why they lapsed from treatment.

Not only could the gamified solution incentivise patients to take their medication, but it could be offered as a more holistic package to motivate better lifestyle choices in diet and exercise to help with those NCD’s. Gamification could be the pill that starts to motivate patients to not only maintain their treatments, but take a more empowered and holistic approach to their ‘actualised self’. This could lead to increased adherence and reduced hospitalisations. Now, that is the sort of collaborative story that clinicians, patients and payers would find extremely compelling.

















About the author:

Andy Stafford is a director at Nitro Digital, a full service digital agency specialising in the pharma and healthcare space. He is passionate about digital innovation and creativity that can be delivered for real impact, and is excited about the potential of gamification, big data, and other trends that could have a massive impact on healthcare.

Andy is currently involved with the launch of Syrum and will be talking at Digipharm. Previous to Nitro, his roles have been in search engine optimisation and mobile marketing.

In what ways can pharma gamification benefit patients?