Gamification Hits Healthcare as Startups Vie for Cash and Partners

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its program produces a significant return on investment, in the form of reduced absenteeism and other measurable metrics. MeYou Health just finished enrolling 1,500 people into a controlled clinical trial to measure the effectiveness of Daily Challenge, Cartter says.

One advantage of being part of a larger health organization like Healthways is access to both capital and a built-in customer base. MeYou Health, for example, has enrolled 230,000 people in Daily Challenge and has support from its parent company to measure the results of the program and develop other products.

Some independent startups are slowly catching on, including Fitocracy, which has 450,000 members, co-founder and CEO Brian Wang says. But its creators admit they’re not entirely sure how they’re going to make money in the business of gamifying health care. “Revenue is not a huge focus right now,” Wang says. The company does take some advertising and it offers a $5-a-month premium membership, he says, but most members participate for free. “Our core strategy has to be about building a huge and awesome platform,” he says.

GymPact nabbed 43,000 sign-ups purely through word of mouth, founder and CEO Yifan Zhang says, but she recognizes the importance of finding partners to fuel the company’s revenue growth. GymPact currently takes a small cut of the rewards it pays to members who exercise. The company is now working with a handful of health plans to set up pilots, including Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

“We definitely need to find a way to work with insurers and employers,” Zhang says. “They are looking for ways to incentivize their members to exercise.”

Healthways’ Cartter predicts the most successful business models will be the ones that derive revenues from health industry players—not directly from consumers. That will require startups to prove they’re offering something truly valuable.

“The primary goal is to engage people in their everyday health and wellness, but they’re not going to be the payers,” he says. “What, then, is your ability to measure that engagement and correlate it to meaningful metrics that a payer is going to pay for, whether it’s a health plan, an employer, a health system, or a hospital system?”

No doubt, there’s still plenty of room for partnering in the health gamification sector. United’s Plourde says his company is paying close attention to the plethora of startups, and it may consider forming deals with some of them down the line to boost its internal programs.

“We know there’s a lot of good thinking out there,” he says. “We’re trying to create a platform that will allow us to tap into that and bring it into this whole ecosystem of health gamification.”

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