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Continued: Healthier living via video game? Twin Cities insurers think so

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 22, 2013 - 10:51 AM

Hoyland’s job is unique among the legions of people who design insurance policies and handle claims at UnitedHealth Group, the nation’s largest health insurer. With a degree in fine arts, the 34-year-old brings a new brand of creativity to a corporate IT division that is focused on R&D and innovation.

“I grew up a gamer and a painter,” she said. “Now I’m painting video games that can help people.”

UnitedHealth’s Baby Blocks game site, targeted at low-income pregnant women and new mothers, is a prime example. As women show up for doctor’s appointments and take other healthy steps during pregnancy and through the baby’s first 15 months, they “unlock a block.” Achieving goals comes with rewards, such as a $20 Old Navy gift card, a free diaper bag or health and wellness items.

About 4,000 women covered by the company’s Medicaid program have used the website since November 2011, when UnitedHealth launched the game in a handful of states. Early results have been encouraging: The moms unlocked an average of three blocks each. The game is now available on the Web and through a mobile phone in eight states, with more expected to come online this year, the company said.

UnitedHealth Group is investing in gaming in big ways and small. It recently worked with the Japanese maker of “Dance, Dance Revolution” to address childhood obesity. United set up an educational version of the popular “exergame” at schools in Florida, Georgia and Texas. As students jump around and hit targets on the dance mat, teachers record a student’s body mass index, calories burned and improvements using a wireless smart card.

“We’ve got to get out of the mind-set that exercising and eating right is undesirable — take your dose of castor oil,” United’s Tuckson said.

Still on the drawing board is a prototype that might be used in physical therapy after a shoulder or knee injury. It uses cameras and motion sensors from Microsoft’s Kinect. As users stand before a large screen and do exercises, an infrared “skeleton tracking” device offers visual feedback to teach proper body position — red (way off) and green (movements are on target). There’s potential to connect with an off-site health provider for additional coaching.

“People leave physical therapy, get home and they don’t know if they’re doing it right,” Hoyland said. With better information, “there’s potential of getting better, faster.”

Lasting results?

Still, some suspect that a heavy reliance on external rewards, such as point systems and prizes, may work in the short term but won’t lead to lasting behavior change. And privacy advocates are concerned about high-tech monitoring and the risks of giving access to personal medical data to employers, insurers and the government.

Ben Sawyer, co-founder of Games for Health, a project funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is determined to prevent gaming from becoming the digital equivalent of the rowing machine folded up under the bed.

In its ninth year, the annual Games for Health conference brings together leaders in medicine, game design, business, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

Sawyer worries that the first wave of games, many with a focus on fitness, will be seen as a dieting aid, rather than something that could teach skills that could last a lifetime.

He envisions a game for young people about drugs and alcohol, or a game targeted toward healthy 20-year-olds that deals with health finances late in life.

“What we’d like to see is that it’s not just the consumerism version of health,” he said, “but that it’s embracing ... opportunities to deliver effective health outcomes.”


Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335


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