Mobile healthcare: how apps are gamifying health

Could health apps help extend our lives? And why aren’t more people embracing digital health in the UK today?

As is the case for almost every sector in society, technology, and particularly mobile apps, are changing health care. With shortages of GPs, an NHS seemingly in crisis, and people increasingly looking to Google to solve health problems, it is verified health apps that can offer trusted responses to health issues. From chronic disease management to calorie trackers.

The medical industry is increasingly relying on preventative care. Getting people to look after their everyday healthcare can, after all, reduce costs for the NHS. Potentially, it could improve patient care. This is definitely the case with conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Mobile technology is already being embraced by our health service. Today 72 apps are currently backed as part of NHS Health Apps.

One advantage that health healthcare has over almost every other preventative healthcare solution is that the apps are intuitive, and often fun to use. And whilst constant notifications on your phone can often be quite distracting, the advantage with healthcare apps is that they positively impact our behaviour.

Whether it’s reminding us to take a walk, or informing us that we need to take our prescription pills at the right time, mobile healthcare encourages us to introduce better practices into daily life.

So why aren’t we all embracing mobile healthcare?

Though health and fitness apps are growing, a surprisingly small percentage of the population across the EU use their mobile device to improve their health. There are a few reasons why this might be the case.

Firstly, people are often uncomfortable sharing their intimate healthcare data with a third-party company. Secondly, a lack of endorsement from pharma and health companies can leave people doubting the legitimacy of what the health app offers. Finally, as with most apps, there are reliability issues. This is most apparent when free apps decide to ride on their initial success and start charging for premium features that were initially free of charge. 

Considering these potential problems, it is of little surprise that in a 2017 Incisive Health study, 73% of respondents from across the EU had never used a health app. Of those that have, 75% of them were aged 24-35. As digital natives, this is unsurprising. But if preventative care through mobile technology is to really take off in the UK, more people need to adopt health tech.

So how would this be possible? The same study by Incisive Health showed that there are positives in the way people see mobile healthcare. Two thirds of people stated that they would consider using a health app in the future. Meanwhile, 71% of people would be happy to share their health data for research purposes.

Whilst not everyone is using health apps on their phones today, the appetite is there to make ehealth a fundamental part of our lives.

Can gamification increase adoption and adherence?

One way in which people are likely to engage more with mobile healthcare is through gamification. The more entertaining mobile applications are, the more likely we are to use them. And through regular interaction, we can reap the health benefits that come with the healthier choices they promote.

Almost all of us know that we need to improve our health in some way. The problem for most people, however, is making long-term behavioral changes that can help us get there. Whether it’s buying the latest gym gear, stocking up on fruit and vegetables, or refusing to go to the pub, actually translating these into long-term health positive habits is where most of us come up short.

The advantage of health apps is that they reward us for our efforts - making us more likely to continue on a path towards better health. In other words, your effort becomes valued, promoting loyalty to the cause. If you run 5km and get a reward from your app, you’re more likely to do it again the next day. Likewise, if you get a notification that celebrates taking medication on time every day for a month, you’ll likely want to continue the positive trend into the next month.

One of the big advantages, particularly in the world of clinical trials, is that health tracking apps could increase engagement and adherence. Often, it can be hard for clinical professionals to accurately track the behaviours of participants. But with mobile healthcare, patients can input their data everyday. When paired with wearable technologies, which can track real-time data such as heart rate, clinical trials can more accurately collect and assess data - which could impact how successful trials are in the future.

Making big steps forward

Outside of calories counters and fitness trackers, there are some really exciting developments currently taking place in app stores. One of the most inspiring advancements is in apps that gamify physical rehabilitation. Whether patients are recovering from a serious injury or stroke, regaining independence can often be a drawn-out, frustrating process. Gamified therapies have the potential to make rehabilitation more entertaining.

Though recovery is rarely fun, gamification can at least add some entertainment value, providing distraction from the pain itself. Today, the two best-known offerings within the health app space are SCI Hard, and Reflexion Health. The former, developed by the University of Michigan, is a game that follows the process of recovering from a serious injury. Reflexion Health, on the other hand, offers video feedback on therapy exercises which are modelled by animated figures.

There are some apps which dive deeper into a future that is even more exciting. MindMaze uses apps alongside VR to help retrain the brain for people who have suffered strokes. Using brain imaging alongside actual games, it also claims to have the potential to help amputee patients. 

Though adoption of health apps isn’t as widespread across the UK as some of us would like, society’s accelerating drive towards a more digital future will inevitably mean that more of us will be using our mobile devices to help us live healthier, longer lives.

With more encouragement from the clinical, science and health industries, and with startups accelerating within the space at a rapid pace, gamified health apps could make the future of health more engaging, and more entertaining.

For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs.
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