A few years ago, United Healthcare’s vice president for innovation, research, and development Nick Martin was having a cocktail party at his Minnesota home. He’d successfully sequestered his son Taylor, but the boy kept asking to play Xbox Kinect, a gaming system that tracks users’ motions, removing the need to touch a game controller. Users are up on their feet, jumping, hopping, dancing, swinging. As parents eventually do, Martin relented.
“It took only nine minutes for every human being there to be in line to play the game,” he said last week.
Martin was addressing a gathering of United Healthcare insurance policy holders, mostly companies and municipalities, at the Westin Galleria in North Dallas. His message was simple: games can be used to improve consumer engagement—and bottom-line results.
“Gaming is the new frontier of healthy living,” Martin told the crowd. “I told our CIO a few years ago that I wanted a job [where I could] play games all day, and I’m this close to making that come true.”
United spends $2 billion a year on technology, from innovation all the way down to the tech used at claim centers.The goal is to create point-of-care tools, Martin said.
“It’s meeting consumers where they want to be met,” he said. “On the phone, on the computer, and on the go.”
And yes, that means products like Provisor—which allows customers to pull up their health records and check prescription prices—and Fitbit, a wireless pedometer that tracks your daily steps. But it also means an increased focus on games and fun applications. Online that includes Scavenger Hunt, where people can go and learn about their benefits through different game levels; it’s a unique way to have patients actually read their benefit statements, Martin said. Of those who go to the site, 88 percent read every single benefit they’ve received. The company’s also testing a physical and occupational therapy program that patients can use at home, using Xbox technology. Eliminating trips to P.T., the program can be done from the confines of a living room and the therapist can be remotely dialed in via video to make sure the patient is doing the exercises correctly.
The program that might have the most far-reaching implications, though, is Baby Blocks. A web-based program, Baby Blocks helps expectant mothers track their pre- and neo-natal appointments, and receive points if they fulfill those appointments. The points can then be cashed in for rattles, diapers, Old Navy gift cards, and other items. Right now United has rolled the program out to its Medicaid subscribers, but hopes to expand it to employer-based plans in early 2014.
Other insurers—Cigna, Humana, WellPoint—have also waded into the gaming waters. And after a decade of growth, the $1.2 billion market for health gaming could explode to $10 billion by 2015, according to some estimates.
“Health games will have huge impacts on the availability, cost, and effectiveness of both remedial and preventative healthcare and the subsequent well-being of people everywhere,” wrote Bill Ferguson in Games For Health Journal. “There will have to be ample evidence of validity and effectiveness of health games for doctors to routinely prescribe and insurers to pay for games used to treat diseases and conditions. Wellness programs using health games, on the other hand, have the potential for significant impacts on human well-being and the costs, pain, and suffering of preventable illnesses and conditions.”
In the end, for Martin, it’s about shifting patients’ thoughts on gaming.
“Games and going technology aren’t just about kids; they’re about adults, too.”