Health care always seems to be on the verge of a technological revolution that never quite arrives.Adam Bosworth, who helped define XML when he worked at Microsoft in the 1990s and did a stint overseeing Google Health in the last decade, has stumbled upon a solution: turn getting healthy into a competitive game.
Bosworth’s three-year-old startup, Keas, started out by trying to help patients manage their health — for instance, it could alert you if your lab tests showed that you no longer needed to be on a certain drug, or if your blood pressure was suddenly dangerously high. It also had health information tailored to your condition — if you had rheumatoid arthritis, you’d see articles about it. He compared it to a Mint.com for health.
But he quickly realised that the business had some big problems:
- Doctors wouldn’t participate. A matrix of incredibly complicated state laws, liability concerns, and unsophisticated technology discourages health providers from sharing information electronically with patients, which made it hard to get information into the system. Bosworth also notes that doctors and hospitals are paid for individual services, which gives them a big incentive against spending lots of time on preventative care.
- Consumers didn’t want to think about it. The bigger problem: most people don’t want to think about their health. They don’t care enough to monitor their blood pressure — much less upload results to an online service. And they certainly don’t care enough to pay for a service, which is how Keas was planning to make money.
- People hated being reminded they’re unhealthy. As soon as patients received a negative alert, most of them were turned off and never looked at the service again.
Last fall, Bosworth took some advice from a young employee who had studied game psychology at Stanford and decided to launch a completely different kind of service that lets people earn points by doing healthy things for a certain time period, like eating leafy vegetables or walking to work.
It also provides quizzes and a strong social element, with a message board for discussing challenges and the ability for groups to compete.
Keas started by selling the new platform to mid-size businesses who were looking for a way to improve employee morale and reduce sick days. Companies could decide to pay a small dollar amount to employees or teams who “won” the game over a certain period of time.
The company launched 10 pilot programs last fall and were amazed at the level of participation.
Most surprising: on Thanksgiving day, 30% of all users logged in to take a quiz or post information about how they were trying to keep healthy. At that point, Bosworth looked at his cofounder George Kassabgi and said, “This is it. If we’re doing anything else, we’re crazy.”
After the pilots ended, more than 90% of employees said they’d recommend the game and play it again, and more than 70% of the people who started playing stayed engaged through the entire 12-week period.
Since then, the company has refocused its entire business around this game model. Keas is selling direct to businesses instead of consumers because the business model is more obvious — consumers won’t pay to play the game and advertisers would want to influence the content, like the quizzes that are one of its most popular features.
Keas also noticed that the team-competition model — a big reason for the game’s success — works best among casual acquaintances like coworkers. When they tested a consumer version of the app, people simply recruited their most athletic and health-conscious friends, which defeats the entire purpose of helping normal people get healthier.
Bosworth has become a huge believer in “gamification” — although he hates the word — and thinks it could apply to other areas like education and retirement planning.
The company recently introduced a way for users to test how Keas works, if you want to check it out for yourself.
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