Can technology make us healthier?


Graphic from


In the past few weeks Pokemon Go has been making headlines as a top trending game. I first heard about the app in this Gizmodo article, looking for some chuckles about all the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) people were getting from (accidentally?) exercising while playing the game. While there are certainly ill-guided individuals who are playing this game while driving, many more have taken to streets and parks on foot in search of Pokemon glory. Many parents are thrilled that technology is getting their children moving, and plenty of adults are also on board.  It’s a rare day when technology increases our activity, though it’s not hard to imagine ways that technology can help us seek better health. I’m not talking about the amazing equipment we have for treating and diagnosing disease, I’m talking about how our phones, computers, gadgets, and online communities can help us pursue health.

Pokemon Go is a great example of a way technology can inspire people to move, and therefore be healthier. It’s special because it appeals to people from all walks of life, including people who may not be that active at baseline. Other technology is aimed for people that are active (or who want to be). Programs such as Strava and technology such as Fitbit, track activity and can also track heart rate, calories burned, and more.

Food is another matter, and social media is a popular medium for sharing recipes and meals. There’s no shortage of viral food videos showing how to make all-manner of unhealthy food. In a quick scroll through my Facebook feed I just saw a video on how to make tater-tot grilled cheese, piña colada cake, ice cream sandwich ice cream cake, and zucchini pizza boats. Yet you can also use social media to encourage healthy eating. Instagram bring legions of health-seekers together under the hashtags #Whole30, #LowCarb, or #WeightWatchers, and there are Facebook groups dedicated to various dietary beliefs. Of course there are also plenty of apps for tracking food intake or finding healthy recipes.

Yet while interacting with others on social media to show off your dinner or to reap accolades for a recent run can be rewarding, technology can do more…

According to Merriam-Webster, gamification is the process of adding games or gamelike elements to something to encourage participation. Pokemon Go is a game, but technology such as Fitbit and Strava allow users to share and compare with other people, which can encourage a competitive attitude, thus fueling people to exercise. Fitbit also offers e-badges: prizes for hitting your goals. On the other end of the spectrum there are apps like Pact, which encourages you to meet your health goals by putting money on the line, cashing in on the desire not to lose your hard earned money in order to help you reach your goals (and maybe earning a few extra bucks from the people that don’t keep their pacts).

But how else can we integrate technology and gamification in health?

As part of our residency program residents, faculty, and staff engage in clinic quality improvement projects. Last year I was on a team working on improving control of hypertension and part of our improvement measure was increasing the utilization of home blood pressure monitoring and a feature in our electronic medical record that allows patients to track and share their home blood pressure readings with their primary care provider. While the integration of home BP measurements into the medical record is great, it’s a little ‘dry’. With a bit of imagination it’s not hard to imagine an app that recorded and gamified home blood pressure monitoring- with users winning badges for documenting BPs, prizes for hitting goals, exercising, and if appropriate losing weight, and taking medication.

Getting adults to buy into new health-centered technology might be a challenge (many patients don’t have smart phones or aren’t engaged in social media), but pediatric care is a field where gamification is already helping patients and providing physicians with information about their patients well-being. The Canadian made “Pain Squad” app is a great example of this:

Pain Squad

Graphic from

This technology won’t be the next Pokemon Go, but it could be the little nudge that gets people engaged in their health and the potential feedback of data to physicians could be another step towards creating truly patient-centered medicine.


Victoria Prince, MD, PhD is a 3rd year Family Medicine resident at the University of Utah.

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