What Can Mobile Health & Wellness Learn From Farmville?


Yesterday, at the opening day of the 2012 Mobile Health Summit, my brain was fixated on how we can build better mobile health and wellness tech tools by understanding the emotional motivators behind our health choices.


As evidenced by the Summit Pavilion displays, the market is flooded with a veritable mobile toy box of tools to help you monitor, track, record, and report on all sorts of health indicators. Many of these tools are well-designed with smart, easy-to-use interfaces, and most of them are aimed at helping people, patients and providers, respond to health problems.


How much mobile health can actually disrupt the health care system and redirect our health choices, I think, has everything to do with how broadly we define our ‘health problems.’ From the clinical perspective, diabetes management is fundamentally about tracking and controlling blood sugar, but for many patients with diabetes their choices about diet and lifestyle are not just about numeric glucose levels. Illness is an intensely emotional affair.


Doug Elwood, a physician and entrepreneur, who was part of a great panel on mobile health gaming yesterday, talked about conversations he had had with his patients on their health care experiences. ‘Dismal’ and ‘disheartening’ were the words he used to describe these conversations. What seemed to really bother Dr. Elwood , though, wasn’t just his patients frustrations with system but their emotional state. These were people who were deeply unhappy.


Dr. Elwood began looking for ways to engage these patients in rebuilding their emotional well-being as well as their physical recovery. He started a research study that involved patients, who were amputees, in using a mobile app and game called MatchMyMoves, which incorporates dance and popular music as a part of a fitness routine. The game has a social sharing component and a scoring system, which encourages users to reach their goals by dancing. The study found that patients thought this type intervention was motivational and could help invest them more in their own care. That’s great news.


Setting aside the research speak, though, the MatchMyMoves approach is something we need more of in mobile health. We need more tech-focused projects that engage people not just in responding to ‘health problems’ but in taking charge of their health, well-being, and potential in ways that are fun, inspiring, and entertaining.


Michael Fergusson of Ayogo suggested during the gaming panel that games mesmerize though emotional narrative, progressive mastery, and social patterning. Fergusson pointed out that games or other virtual worlds can alter the contextual reality in ways that allow people to be convinced to do things that they might otherwise resist. He pointed to the fact that his daughter will set an alarm to get up and do chores on her virtual farm in Farmville but he can’t motivate her to wash the dishes in their non-virtual kitchen.


It is a simple example, but it left me thinking, what does mobile health have to learn from Farmville in terms of motivating people to make the choices that will keep them well or help them get healthy?


To hear more about the 2012 Mobile Health Summit follow #MHS12 on Twitter. This blog was originally published by Techurself, Inc