Gamification is one of the trendiest topics these days within healthcare. Supporters believe that it can change the game (pun intended) for how we engage and motivate patients, because ultimately that will be how healthcare becomes more preventative as opposed to reactive. Medgadget has covered a number of games for health, including one for identifying strokes and another that motivates children with cancer.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Alex Ryu, the CEO of Lifeguard Games and a Harvard Medical School student who’s taking a leave to work full-time on his startup. His company has developed a game called Wellapets that teaches children with asthma how to manage their condition.
Shiv Gaglani, Medgadget: What inspired you to start Wellapets?
Alex Ryu: We became inspired to create Wellapets through a blend of passion, exciting research and personal experience. Given that the biggest determinant of health is not our medical care, but rather our day-to-day decisions for our health, our team has always been interested in influencing those decisions through consumer health technology. Working with kids is particularly meaningful because every child we help can hopefully go on to live many happier and healthier years.
An exciting moment for us was coming across the research studies demonstrating that educational games can not only teach kids about their health, but can actually keep kids healthier. When we realized that no one had developed exciting educational games like these for mobile, we knew we wanted to be the first.
The third piece that compelled us to create Wellapets, and to focus first on asthma, was our team’s personal experience with asthma. Growing up, we all had been affected by asthma in different ways through peers and family. I personally remember a friend of mine having a severe asthma attack on the ski club bus in middle school, and the bus having to divert to the nearest hospital. It was a scary experience for everyone. Then, through my experiences working in hospitals, I saw how difficult asthma could be for kids and families, and the consequences that resulted when kids’ asthma is not well-controlled.
Medgadget: Can you describe what makes Wellapets unique?
Ryu: Wellapets is the first mobile game series designed to teach and motivate kids to stay well. Unlike any other educational games, we combine the timeless, lovable nature of virtual pets with educational health content in a way that looks and feels like a game, not a tool or lecture. Fundamentally, we have always sought to create, first and foremost, a fun game that any kid could enjoy. Wellapets also has the unique potential to grow into a larger brand promoting kids’ wellness through a defined set of characters and across a variety of wellness interests.
Medgadget: Have you received any initial user feedback?
Ryu: We certainly have, and it has been incredibly positive as well as informative! We have seen kids with and without asthma enjoying caring for their Wellapets, which is very exciting to us. We have also heard from parents who are managing their child’s asthma that Wellapets has been uniquely useful and engaging for their child. Another thing we really love is hearing from users about the features and fixes they would like to see. For instance, we got rid of a comic at the beginning of our game because we heard from our users that it took too long to view. We definitely pride ourselves on being able to respond to feedback quickly – since we are a small team, users’ feedback still lands in our co-founders’ inboxes.
Medgadget: What other conditions do you intend to tackle, beyond asthma?
Ryu: After asthma, we will likely create a sequel game for food allergy. From there, we will consider games for diabetes, weight management, and other conditions.
Medgadget: Do you see this as interfacing with any other smartphone-based apps/medical devices?
Ryu: Not at this time, but it is something we would consider, although less so with devices. We are passionate about retaining Wellapets’ identity as a lovable mobile game, as opposed to a tool with a game component.
Medgadget: What is your background in medical innovation?
Ryu: Before founding Wellapets, I had worked with a team of students, including our co-founders, to develop a web-based electronic medical records system focused on maternal and child care. Our system provided a better way to organize and schedule visits by combining our web application with SMS reminders. The system was adopted by 14 hospitals in India, but was eventually replaced by a mandatory-use government system that served largely the same functions.
I also previously worked with an NGO and an insurer to create new health microinsurance products for impoverished patients in India.
Medgadget: What have been your biggest challenges in developing Wellapets?
Ryu: The single biggest challenge we’ve faced was getting our game design right. We initially made the mistake of building a game around educational objectives, rather than weaving educational objectives into a game, but through several rounds of testing and collaboration with industry veterans, we arrived at a more cohesive design. Early on, we also had the challenge of simply finding age-appropriate test users. Since our game is primarily for kids ages 6-11, and none of us had kids, it was initially challenging to find testers, but thanks to several early supporters around Boston, we were able to with families and clinics in the area to hone our design.
Link: Wellapets Homepage…