Healthier living via video game? Twin Cities insurers think so

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

Twin Cities insurers say gaming has broad potential, from treating chronically ill kids to well-baby care.


Arrianne Hoyland is developing videogames for health care applications as a Game Producer at UnitedHealth Group headquarters . Growing up when she wasn't painting she was playing video games and vice a versa. She was talking about the latest games, in the UnitedHealth's innovation lab.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Long scorned for contributing to a ­sedentary lifestyle and a host of other ills, video games are gaining ground as a way to get people healthier.

A video game can turn a child with diabetes into an empowered superhero who tests his blood sugar before taking on monsters. Give a new mother a game — with gift cards as prizes — and she’s more likely to show up for well-baby visits.

“Games tap into very deep and fundamental aspects of our psychology,” said Ken Werbach, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who wrote a book on gaming. “We love surprises, we love challenges, we love competition, we love fun.”

Insurance companies and health care providers see growing potential for ­“serious gaming” to promote healthy behavior and even treat disease. After a decade of slow growth, the $1.2 billion market for health gaming could explode to $10 billion by 2015, according to some estimates.

Rising interest in the field is spawning new careers, attracting the interest of deep-pocketed corporations and changing the way doctors, patients and insurers interact with data and each other.

“The amount of research going into it is increasing, the number of start-up companies is increasing, the amount of research in hospitals and medical centers is increasing,” said Bill Ferguson, editor-in-chief of Games for Health Journal, a peer-reviewed behavioral health publication that launched last year. “It’s growing very fast.”

National insurers such as UnitedHealth, WellPoint, Humana and Cigna are all players in the health-gaming world. The companies recognized early on that self-monitoring and healthy habits can prevent costly hospital stays. Games may also help address the costly and pervasive problem of noncompliance — when patients leave the clinic and don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

Businesses that want to lower costs or pump up their wellness programs are starting to turn to games as well.

“This stuff is based on sophisticated theories about learning and motivation,” said Dr. Reed Tuckson, chief of medical affairs at UnitedHealth Group. “How do you help people get good at making good decisions?”

There’s more to games’ potential than changing behavior. The National Institutes of Health is investing more than $38 million to fund more than 50 research projects using video games.

Games have been used to help veterans combat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and have helped children with cancer develop more resilience and a “fighting spirit” during chemotherapy.

Scientists are looking at the influence of video games on brain activity and potential treatments for a wide range of conditions, including autism, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“We’re at a time of high need and high potential,” said Susannah Fox of Pew Internet Research, who studies cultural shifts in technology and health care. Widespread use of the gadgetry is fueling the growth of health gaming. More than half of U.S. adults now have a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center, and more than seven in 10 adults track their health in some way. The time may be ripe for games to make a mark in public health, Fox said.

“Two-thirds of American adults are overweight, we’ve got a lot of folks with chronic illnesses — many with things such as hypertension and diabetes that could benefit from tracking,” she said. “The challenge for people developing games is to make it as easy as keeping track in your head and as enticing as ‘Angry Birds.’ ”

Projects at UnitedHealth

At UnitedHealth Group’s Minnetonka headquarters, an “innovation lab” showcases several gaming projects underway or in development.

Arrianne Hoyland, the insurance company’s first — and only — game producer, flicks through a few examples on her iPad.

There’s a scavenger hunt to make the workplace open-enrollment process less daunting. Another application incorporates a wireless tracking pedometer developed by San Francisco start-up Fitbit. The “OptumizeMe” game lets individual players or groups of ­people compete against friends, work colleagues or a broader social network to eat healthier, exercise and lose weight.

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