Gaming takes hold in healthcare

mHealth Summit spotlights the new in health gaming

Halo for healthcare? A medicinal Madden? World of wellness?

Long the realm of sports, fantasy and trivia, the world of gaming technology is making its way into more serious domains. One of the more popular mash-ups involves mobile health, where games and gaming technology have been used to help "players" manage and even improve their lifestyle choices.

"Almost every major health provider that I know of has dabbled" in gaming, says Ben Sawyer, a Maine-based entrepreneur who co-founded the Serious Games Initiative in 2002 and the Games for Health project in 2004. "A lot of them have that, sort of like, music but not the lyrics interest in it – they understand the concept, but they don't know how to implement it."

[See also: ONC looks to grow the power of health gaming.]

Together with fellow Maine native Beth Bryant and funding from the Pioneer Portfolio, an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sawyer has developed Games for Health into what he calls a "sustaining, strategic force in healthcare." The project brings together gaming entrepreneurs, researchers, healthcare experts and others to discuss such topics as exergaming, physical therapy, disease management, health behavior change, biofeedback, rehabilitation, epidemiology, training, cognitive health, nutrition and health education.

The project also convenes an annual three-day conference, which Sawyer says began with roughly 100 people and should attract more than 500 next year.

Sawyer says gaming and gaming technology have evolved at a fast pace in recent years, alongside the explosion on growth of mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets. That plays right into healthcare's hand.

[See also: Game on!]

"It's really interesting to think about how these are personal devices," Sawyer says. "Healthcare is not necessarily the most comforting situation," so something that can take the edge off of that discomfort would be welcomed by patients and providers alike.

And while critics say gaming technology isn't serious enough to apply to healthcare, Sawyer says that's the result of an immature industry.

"You haven't had enough products out there yet" to change those opinions, he says. "Entertainment is given an immense amount of flexibility. What we need to do is harness those things as best we can and apply them to the utility of healthcare."

Sawyer and Bryant are exhibiting at the Games for Health Pavilion in the mHealth Summit in Wahington D.C. this week. The pavilion features a wide array of games and concepts, some of which have been in existence for some time outside the mobile health space, and some of which are brand-new. He wants to see new conversations started in the pavilion, new partnerships "with people who get the idea," new avenues and approaches.

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