Pokémon Go's immediate impact on public health: 144 billion steps and counting

The accidental health app bested other tools in engaging patients who stand to benefit most. But whether Pokémon Go or future apps and devices specifically designed to keep people moving will succeed depends on the very big question of design.
By Tom Sullivan
09:12 AM
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Pokémon Go public health

Pokémon Go was an instant summer sensation that many people in the healthcare and technology industries hailed as a harbinger of apps and devices designed to engage patients in new ways. 

The exact extent to which it activated those people, and the promise that such tools ultimately hold for health apps, has been very difficult to calculate.

Researchers at Microsoft, however, conducted a study by using large-scale wearable sensor data collected from Microsoft Band users and search engine logs.

Pokémon Go players increased their physical activity by 26 percent in the 30-day period measured and, what’s more, the most engaged players took an average of 1,473 additional steps daily.  Those same highly engaged users, in fact, were three times more likely to meet the official guideline of 8,000 steps per day.

[EHRs getting better? Readers rank vendors higher than last year in new survey]

In total, Pokémon Go led to 144 billion more steps than would have otherwise been taken in the U.S. alone, Microsoft researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz along with Stanford University student and Microsoft intern Tim Althoff estimated in their research report.

While the initial benefits are undeniable, the looming question of how to design an app or game that people use on an ongoing basis remains.

A matter of design?
No single app or game that exists today will likely be the answer to many of America’s health problems like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and the metabolic syndrome. But there are certainly lessons that public and private healthcare organizations can learn from Pokémon Go in reaching consumers with new, and sometimes surprising, ways that are more effective than traditional health apps.

Microsoft researchers compared Pokémon Go to four unnamed health apps and determined that it was able to engage and activate previously inactive populations — something other technologies have thus far failed to accomplish. 

"Comparing Pokémon Go to existing mobile health apps, we find further evidence that Pokémon Go is able to reach low activity populations while mobile health and fitness apps largely draw from an already active population," the researchers explained. "This highlights the promise of game-based interventions versus traditional approaches, which have often been ineffective for these groups of people."

That is perhaps the biggest upside to public health efforts focusing on making patients more accountable for their individual health as part of a broader strategy to reduce taxpayer spending on care and insurance.

The researchers also suggested that if such activity levels continued apace, Pokémon Go could add 2,825 million more years to users in the U.S. 

And that is the big design question public health entities, entrepreneurs and healthcare executives face: How can we possibly design a game, app or device that can keep users engaged and active over the long haul?

Hurdles and promises
Right now it appears that even Pokémon Go will not be the tool that helps users sustain their activity levels for years to come.

After spiking at some 45 million daily active users in July, the month it was first available to download and play, that number dipped down to 30 million by summer’s end.  

[Also: Pokémon Go decline does not bode well for patient engagement]

The highest hurdle to designing a successful patient activation tool, of course, is that games must hold player interest beyond the exciting shiny new object phase.

Games also have to bring a broad appeal to reach wide populations of males and females and, the Microsoft researchers added, they need to complement existing physical activities rather than replacing them.

"We see great promise for public health in designing geocentric games like Pokémon Go and in working to sustain users' engagement," the researchers wrote. "Understanding how to design games and how to bring together games and health interventions will be important to public health in the future."

Twitter: @SullyHIT
Email the writer: tom.sullivan@himssmedia.com


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