I admit that in the last week, I have gotten completely addicted to Pokémon Go. I’m just the right age for it; at almost 30, I remember playing the card version of the game during lunch throughout middle school and at least two Gameboy versions. There is a disturbing amount of Pokémon knowledge still in my brain, which I didn’t even realize until I was explaining to my husband that the silhouette we were chasing was obviously a Haunter, which evolves from a Ghastly, and that I needed another Ghost type Pokémon to beat the local gym. In addition to the fun aspects of this game, an interesting side effect of the game’s mechanics is that it inadvertently promotes healthy activity; MobiHealthNews has called it the fastest-growing unintentional health app. I’ve been going on hour-long walks most days to play, since I live next to a college campus which has turned out to be a hotbed of Pokémon activity.

The success of this game may suggest a way for drug developers to improve their efforts to launch digital platforms that are designed to improve education or adherence to a medical regimen for patients. Many health apps have already been launched, but their success has been mixed, with the president of the AMA stating that the majority of apps are not likely to be useful and calling them “the snake oil of the 21stcentury,” and voiced special concern that some apps are attempting to bypass the doctor-patient relationship by providing information directly to consumer. However the legitimacy of this concern is questionable in a time when many patients google their symptoms before ever calling their physician. AstraZeneca has launched such an app, which offers dosing and refill reminders for any drug and includes built-in information for drugs in their own portfolio, in addition to easy, in-app access to general health information. This is one area where Pokémon Go falls short; web tutorials have been essential for me to figure out the mechanics of the game. Having knowledge at your fingertips, within the app, both maximizes interaction and provides a benefit to the user.

Recently, “gamification” has been discussed as a way to improve patient engagement with health apps, and this is where Pokémon Go provides an illustrative model. Boehringer Ingelheim’s RespiPointsprovides a gamified health program; this web-based platform also offers medication reminders, in addition to daily quizzes and information. However, in this application, users can earn points for confirming that they have taken their daily dose of Spiriva and for verifying their refills. These points can be redeemed for real-world rewards in the form of gift cards; Pokémon Go’s rewards are in-game and demonstrate that no monetary, nor even tangible, rewards are necessary to promote consumer engagement.

One important feature of Pokémon Go is the semi-social aspect; I have had several Pokémon-inspired conversations near lures that I or other players have dropped, including a friendly rivalry with a player from another team at a gym while waiting for my commuter train today; some users have even ambitiously declared that Pokémon Go may beneficial for mental health as a result, highlighting the centrality of the social aspect in the experience of some players. Although it is unlikely that any pharmaceutical company has the in-house expertise to develop a game as complex as Pokémon, such a platform may not be out of reach. Partnering with companies offering expertise in this area may be the best route if they wish to capitalize on this strategy. This is the case for Ayogo, a company developing a gamified health app, which has already established partnerships with Merck, Sanofi, and Boehringer Ingelheim. Ayogo combines the goal-setting and rewards capability already available in many apps with a social platform and built-in information from pharmaceutical companies, making it possibly the most robust health app currently available.

The future of healthcare could be positively impacted by the development of well-designed mobile apps, combining game strategy, social media, and built-in informatics to support a variety of patient behavior and knowledge building, and if they can support the traditional doctor-patient relationship, may even garner the support of the AMA. The staying power of Pokémon Go is yet to be determined, but the quick and enthusiastic uptake highlights how a game can add significantly to someone’s motivation to engage in healthy behavior. With that, I’m off to be the very best, like no one ever was. Go Team Instinct!

Special thanks to Matt Scutcher and Mike Darcy, who provided information and links to sources cited in this article.

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