Start-Ups Look to Social Gaming to Make Health Care Less of a Pain
By TIMOTHY HAY
A group of technology start-ups is taking its cue from social gaming, in hopes of relieving companies, doctors and patients of some of the pain involved in managing health care.
The new businesses, staffed mainly by health-industry veterans, have adapted common social-gaming features to help companies motivate their employees to get fitter or to encourage doctors to keep in touch with their colleagues and patients online.
One of the start-ups, Keas Inc., whose clients include Pfizer Inc. and Novartis Inc., offers a gaming platform that allows groups of employees to compete with one another at exercising, eating healthily and taking better care of themselves.
San Francisco-based Keas originally aimed to offer consumers alerts, messaging and personalized information to help them lose weight and adopt healthier habits, but that plan didn't work out.
"We tried to give people constant feedback about their health, but for a lot of people, more bad news and negative feedback just didn't work," said Adam Bosworth, the company's chief technology officer. "If you keep giving someone negative feedback, they will eventually change the channel to the game channel. One day we decided to become that game channel."
Keas now sets up contests in which co-workers compete by walking to the office more often or eating more vegetables. It says it has 80,000 active users, more than $16 million in venture capital and a growing list of customers. Quest Diagnostics Inc. said more than 80% of its employees who participated in an employee-wellness pilot program with Keas reported improved health.
Other start-ups are pushing doctors to step up their game with features found in social games like Zynga Inc.'s Farmville or on social-networking sites like Facebook or Foursquare.
HealthTap Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., runs a website that doctors can use to build an online profile, gaining public exposure by answering health-related questions from consumers. The more questions a doctor answers, the more points the doctor wins and the more prominently he is featured on the site, potentially attracting more patients. Patients, meanwhile, can sign up as followers of a particular doctor or of other patients on the site and can indicate if they like or dislike various bits of content.
HealthTap says more than 6,000 doctors, as well as institutions including Harvard Medical School and the Cleveland Clinic, are actively answering users' questions on its site.
"We're not building a game here, just adding subtle game mechanics to make it more fun for doctors," said HealthTap Chief Executive Ron Gutman.
Audax Health Inc., a Washington-based start-up with $16.5 million in funding, said it plans to offer a gaming platform designed to enable large insurers to offer incentives to their members—such as reduced premiums—in return for adopting healthier habits.
Doximity Inc. and WellnessFX Inc., two start-ups that have gained some traction among health-care providers, are in the process of incorporating gaming features.
Doximity, based in San Mateo, Calif., provides a secure messaging platform that doctors can use to answer treatment questions from colleagues, and to become acquainted with other doctors, to whom they can refer patients. Because of strict privacy laws, doctors often discuss cases by fax, since regular email isn't considered secure enough.
Chief Executive Jeff Tangney said Doximity has grown more quickly over the past several months since it added some game-like features. By expanding their network of friends and followers on Doximity, a doctors can earn a "Top Doctor" badge on the website, a potential magnet for referrals. Doximity soon plans to let users "follow" one another, he said, as they can on other platforms.
San Francisco-based WellnessFX, which analyzes blood and urine samples, also provides a secure online forum in which doctors can confer with their patients.
WellnessFX is considering adding game features to the mix to keep doctors and patients engaged, according to Chief Executive Jim Kean. "We're working on badges and leaderboards," he said.