Gamification Grows Up

Jun 01, 2012

Stockbyte / Getty Images
Companies using game mechanics to encourage specific patient behavior is not a new phenomenon within Big Pharma—a surprising conclusion given that the industry tends toward the walker's lane in the race to apply hard technology to the art of marketing and promotion. But the game is changing fast, driven by two major changes in the way technology can be applied to broaden the patient experience in healthcare. These are the widespread adoption of mobile devices with computer-strength processing power and graphics, and the participation of nearly everybody in one online social network or another.

On top of that, game developers have learned how to control costs and address the issue of scale by anticipating precise needs in the market, like training reps or illuminating biological systems for physicians through simulation; targeting a condition or disease state and the already-existing behavior set of those patients; or creating an emotional response to facilitate learning around specific tasks. By building technology platforms, agencies don't have to start from scratch with each new game, which can quickly get prohibitively time consuming and expensive.

To examine the evolution of gaming in the healthcare space—what companies are doing now, where things are going, and why—Pharm Exec spoke with three gaming agency CEOs about the programs they've developed for Big Pharma clients, and their approaches in general to engaging physicians and consumers using game technology.

Change...or else

Doug Seifert, CEO at Syandus, a small experiential learning agency in Exton, PA, says "learning by doing" is the most effective way to absorb complex concepts. One of Syandus's projects, created for two large pharmas that co-promote a drug for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a simulation tool that lets physicians explore the disease with unprecedented interactivity. COPD is complex, and often patients—and their physicians—don't fully understand the consequences of certain behaviors.

Syndus's COPD simulation lets physicians interact inside the disease environment.
With the COPD simulation, physicians can control a virtual patient (which can mirror an actual patient through the insertion of medical record information), and tweak environmental variables to see how that patient might respond, on a deep physiological level. A physician can introduce a drug therapy, or even change the number of cigarettes a patient smokes per day. This kind of playfulness by a physician provides a stronger knowledge of the disease, and it also facilitates a more valuable exchange during a patient consultation.

Physicians can demonstrate to patients how smoking exacerbates COPD.
Specifically, physicians have used the simulations to help patients visually understand how behavior affects their health outcome. Take smoking, for example. "It's hard for a patient to really understand what's going on in their lungs, but when you go into the [simulation environment] and see a cross-section of what's happening when you breathe—here's the constriction that occurs—it helps to create a very vivid image of, 'this is where you are, and if you keep smoking it will get worse, so let me show you where it's going.' Being able to demonstrate disease progression visually is very important," says Seifert. The COPD simulation program isn't really a game per se, but it employs game technology, by allowing physicians to make choices and see the results of those choices.

Syndus's simulation interface tool.
Seifert calls simulation an example of "serious games," which differ from games constructed around missions, which the player traverses through failure. "Try this over and over again and you'll eventually get it—that's not really effective from a learning perspective," says Seifert. "Casual games for learning is the edutainment model; kind of fun, and you play around and learn a few things along the way, but it's not built around how can we help a learner understand this concept using this technology. That's a different twist and it's harder, but the results are spectacular."