Gamification through mobile health applications, simulations and augmented reality has far reaching applications in digital health.

Gamification refers to applying game elements and game design techniques to everyday problems and challenges. By making existing tasks feel more like games, people can be encouraged to pursue desired course of action and accomplish constructive tasks.

Gamification techniques typically include adding exciting narrative, increasing challenge, offering rewards, helping with easy-to-understand tutorials and presenting meaningful choice in an otherwise dull and boring tasks.

While Gamification is not new to US military surgeons, who extensively used simulation for training purposes, the commercial healthcare industry has been experimenting with it only in recent times. At present, healthcare gamification is most evident in mobile health applications, simulations and augmented reality.

Gamification in Mobile Apps

Game-based applications exploit our natural urge to compete and achieve. These apps typically use points, virtual badges and mastery levels to motivate users and encourage them toward healthy behaviour and positive outcomes using a game-based approach.

Healthcare-related mobile apps are becoming popular at an astonishing speed, especially in the gaming-accustomed 18-25 years age group. By the end of 2012, more than 30,000 digital health applications registered 247 million downloads and the revenue from these apps touched $11.2 billion, a ten-fold increase over its previous year.

Mobile health apps are designed to monitor a specific aspect of the user’s health profile such as sleep, nutrition or weight management. Using gaming tools and techniques, they encourage users to make small improvements by tracking various health metrics, such as duration of different stages in sleep cycles, to achieve healthy outcomes, such as inculcating good sleep habits.

Digital health applications also help in disease prevention, patient self-management and treatment adherence. To help and motivate people who find it difficult to stick to drug schedule, especially in the case of chronic diseases like diabetes which require constant monitoring, mobile apps have been using game-based rewards strategy to encourage drug adherence.

Some apps aim to improve cognitive, emotional and behavioural health of users through games that boost attention spans. There also exist biofeedback digital health devices that help people reduce anxiety through deep-breathing and mindfulness techniques.

Gamification through Simulation

Simulations with 2D & 3D graphics, comics and engaging visualisations are being used to train healthcare professionals in diagnosis, treatment procedures and patient monitoring.

The Centre for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS) developed a simulation that uses gaming-style virtual avatars to teach healthcare professionals the proper techniques and soft skills to communicate difficult diagnoses and deliver bad news to patients.

In another development, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has used novel gaming concepts to improve awareness about AIDS and elicit positive behaviour change in at-risk groups.

Gamification via Augmented Reality (AR)

Augmented Reality is a live, direct view of real world that is augmented by computer-generated inputs, such as sound, video, graphics, avatars, GPS data, etc. Users can interact with the augmented elements and affect changes in real time.

AR has been proven to be very useful in surgery. Typically, 3D visualisations of organs are superimposed on a patient’s body. In the resulting overlay, medical students can see what the experienced surgeon is seeing during the surgical procedure and this improves the learning experience.

A recent and well-publicised development that uses AR is Google Glass, a wearable head-mounted display that lets users view overlaid data and use internet to transmit it anywhere in the world. A surgeon in the operating theatre can view data about various health parameters projected onto his or her glasses without having to turn and check the monitors.

Future Directions

The possibilities of applications of gamification in digital health are enormous. Simulation-based training will be extensively used to train healthcare professionals. Technology will evolve from data projection to gesture and sensor recognition.

Health insurers and healthcare organisations will focus heavily on offering easy-to-use, game-based interactive tools to consumers to reduce health risks and promote healthy habits. As digital health adoption increases, the healthcare organizations will increasingly leverage gamification to engage customers and drive them toward healthier outcomes.