Featured Health Business Daily Story, Nov. 12, 2012

Health Plans See Video Game Use Moving Beyond Couch Potato Cures

Reprinted from HEALTH PLAN WEEK, the most reliable source of objective business, financial and regulatory news of the health insurance industry.

By Patrick Connole, Managing Editor
October 29, 2012Volume 22Issue 38

Health plans are pursuing new ways to entice and incent members into not only getting in better shape through the use of video games, but to also use “gamification” as a method to collect data, offer medical care, guide appointment adherence and bring cost transparency to customers, possibly leading to more value-drive health care.

During an Oct. 23 AIS webinar, “Gamification Strategies for Health Plans: How to Improve Wellness and Member Behavior,” speakers Robert Plourde, vice president, innovation and R&D, UnitedHealth Group, and David Lenihan, CEO, Healthper, Inc., described how the health plan and social network game-based service each are creating new niches for video games.

UnitedHealth, Plourde said, is laying out specific social interactions, like competitions, to lower weight and improve exercise time (HPW 4/23/12, p. 1). But it’s much more than that, he added.

For the country’s largest insurer, video games are about three concepts, he said. One is game play to get people active and educated about their health; two is gamification, which to UnitedHealth means using the mechanics of a video game to engage customers; and three is the technological aspect allowing people to use a mobile device or personal computer for health care solutions. “Almost every U.S. household has a gaming device,” he said, and the mix of people using games is no longer tied to one gender or age group. Females, families and single adults tap into games for entertainment, joining the traditional game user, young males, Plourde said.

He cited the company’s Baby Blocks mobile rewards game as evidence of the move beyond exercise- and weight reduction-only uses of games. Baby Blocks targets Medicaid moms through an interactive, mobile-optimized incentive program to encourage these women to keep doctor appointments during and after their pregnancies.

UnitedHealth is getting “very, very strong results” from the program, which rewards mothers with coupons or other assistance in getting products they need while pregnant and later for baby needs after birth, Plourde added. “People are actually learning more about their pregnancies,” he said. The insurer is exploring ways to take the effort beyond Medicaid moms to the employer-group population.

Another game is a health cost estimator, which seeks to raise awareness of the actual costs for medical care and procedures. Called myHealthcare Cost Estimator, Plourde sees this game as a “fun” way to bring cost transparency to customers. “This is a series of games and educational materials asking what is available, how much does my hip replacement cost [for example]? How can I manage the cost?” he explained.

UnitedHealth also is developing a program featuring Kinect for Windows software to help patients with physical therapy. In addition, games are being used to help families care for autistic children.

Investing in Wellness Proves a Money Saver

Even though many health plans’ gamification efforts are in the early stages of development, the use of games is wrapped into larger health and wellness programs, which are becoming popular as ways to cut long-term health care costs. Getting bang for your buck is what it’s all about, said Lenihan. He cited a Harvard Business Review article stating that while employee wellness programs have often been viewed as an add-on and not a “strategic imperative,” data show the return on investment from comprehensive, high-quality employee wellness programs can reach a ratio of 6:1. Health Affairs also has published research detailing how wellness programs give “substantial positive returns” to companies and health plans, he adds. “Medical costs fall about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, and absentee day costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent,” Lenihan said, describing the Health Affairs report.

Calling wellness and consumer-centric care the new frontier for the health insurance industry, Lenihan said gamification is key to influencing individual decision-making and creating positive behavioral change. The question is “how do you incent to achieve success,” he added.

He recommended designing programs with good health assessment tools that encourage member engagement. Measurement is also vital, using metrics that follow the value proposition and seek news ways to capture data collected through the games.

Plourde said there is no one way to get results, noting each effort has its own idiosyncrasies. “It really depends on the audience. For weight loss, the social aspect [creating personal social networks to engage friends and families in the effort] is extremely effective at keeping people engaged,” he contended.

As for the gaming industry, it remains “afraid” of health care, because of concerns that by making game units or devices into tracking mechanisms, they will be viewed as clinical devices, thus bringing FDA oversight to the industry, Plourde said.


For a recording and accompanying materials from AIS’s Oct. 24 gamification webinar, visit http://aishealth.com/marketplace/c2m35_102312 or call (800) 521-4323.

© 2012 by Atlantic Information Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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