Playing Games: Adopting Game-Based Strategies Can Improve Engagement and Outcomes

July 12, 2016

By Jill Sederstrom

Games aren't just for fun anymore—research has shown that incorporating game-based strategies into patient outreach or physician training and education cannot only improve engagement, it can also lead to better outcomes.

"I see games and gamification being adopted more widely than ever before on both the patient side and the health care worker side," says Karl Kapp, EdD, professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University and the author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction

On the health care professional side of the equation, Dr Kapp says he's seen more medical schools adopting game-based strategies to improve education and retention of knowledge, even if it's something as simple as digital flashcards where students get points for correct answers. There's also been a "big explosion" in the use of serious games in health care that operate similarly to simulations; however, participants may be timed or get points for successfully completing aspects of the game that are designed to mimic real-world situations.

There has also been an increase in the use of games or game-based strategies aimed at patients themselves, whether it's to improve patient engagement or to promote behavior change.

"One of the hardest things with patients of course is to incentivize them to stay on the medical protocol," Dr Kapp says. "So, one of the things that some organizations have starting doing is gamify the medical protocol, so we've seen things like gamified inhalers to teach people how to properly align the inhaler. There's a game to teach kids about cancer called ReMission." 

But while game-based strategies have been found to improve outcomes for both patients and health care providers alike, success isn't guaranteed just because there's a game involved. There are several key components to consider as payers and providers decide whether adopting game-based learning is the best strategy for them.


“Gamification” vs Just “a Game”

“Gamification” is a term that has garnered a lot of attention in health care, but just what does it mean and how does it differ from a game itself? 

Dr Kapp describes gamification as something that takes game elements and incorporates them into something else. For example, maybe patients are sent a reminder to take their medication each day and, if they record that they've taken it, they get points or badges.

"So, it's a continual use of game elements to influence behavior," he says. 

He believes there can be 2 types of gamification: structural or content. Structural gamification is simply putting a game structure around regular instruction or recommendations—possibly logging into a diabetes website and tracking food to earn points. 

With content gamification, the content is changed to be more game-like. So, for instance, a fitness challenge may be presented as a mission to run 3 blocks in an attempt to escape zombies.

A game, however, is a self-contained entity that you play for a very defined period of time. 

"It's designed to be a game, so you know it's a game environment, it's not masking as something else," Dr Kapp says.

Both gamification and game strategies are used in health care.