Community and Gamification: New digital approaches to treating disease

“Community” has been a buzzword in digital marketing over the past few years. 

The widely-agreed upon thesis is this: Curating a digital community is the best way to both engage and study your audience. But community is also a source of psychosocial support for patients struggling with chronic issues ranging from diabetes to derm concerns. 

As a result, a growing number of digital therapeutics (DTx) products are using community as a fundamental aspect of their product. 

Similarly, bringing the worlds of video games and DTx closer together makes the tools more enticing for patients. And not just for XR products.

Today, as DTx products continue to rise and fall in the marketplace and hype cycle, we’re exploring two case studies for how newer DTx players are successfully leveraging community and gamification to promote patients buy-in.

Illustration by Mary Delaney
Illustration by Mary Delaney

Community for psoriasis patients

German digital therapy expert GAIA is launching klariva, its DTx for psoriasis.

How can a digital product help dermatology patients? By addressing their psychosocial needs. The tool offers psychological support tailored to the needs of patients suffering from anxiety and depression brought about by their skin conditions—and a built-in patient peer-support community.

As with many chronic conditions, dermatological concerns like psoriasis don’t happen in vacuum. The condition itself can negatively affect a patient’s overall well-being—and vice versa. Stress and poor mental health can themselves be psoriasis flare-up triggers.

That’s where GAIA’s idea with klariva comes in. Community support for psoriasis in itself can be part of a treatment. The primary endpoint being examined in a randomized clinical trial is the Dermatology Life Quality Index—and a secondary endpoint is depressive symptoms.

This approach to DTx builds off the benefits of shared health experience fostered by platforms like PatientsLikeMe, which have long empowered patients to take charge in their own care. Today’s DTx health communities simply take the benefits of this kind of support a step further.

Gamification for asthma patients

ASTHMAXcel PRO is a new digital health app that empowers asthma patients to better manage their conditions and more easily share decision-making with their provider. The team behind the tool has just completed a field study and placed a publication in The Journal of Asthma.

One key aspect of the app’s UX is its gamification.

The idea behind the app’s “PRO Trophy Room” is to incentivize improved patient self-management and patient-reported outcomes (PROs). In the team’s research, they found incorporation of virtual coins, trophies, and even leaderboards would incentivize patients to keep using the app.

In fact, many of these features actually came from direct patient suggestions, with the team’s study finding that these suggested features ended up being most closely tied to engagement after the app’s rollout.

The team intends the tool to be crafted especially for those disproportionately affected by asthma, especially Black and Hispanic patients in areas like The Bronx, New York. In this setting, where the research team at Albert Einstein College of Medicine is also located, factors contributing to poor asthma outcomes include poverty, environmental pollution, poor healthcare access, lack of patient awareness about medication use, and difficulty in medical regimen adherence.

An adaptive and personalized app that patients want to use can make a tangible difference in several of these factors. Plus, it gets providers more regular updates on patient progress, improving shared decision-making.

Our perspective: Moving beyond “can it work?” in DTx

It’s clear we’ve turned a corner with DTx. 

As we mentioned in 2021, the broadening acceptance of telehealth and digital communication as a valid approach to medicine since 2020 has helped many more DTx solutions find a foothold.

The question is no longer whether these tools can work and be adopted by patients. Increasing adherence by making these apps not just easy but fun and affirming to use continues to entrench these tools on the patient side. 

Now, the new frontier is provider and health system acceptance—and insurance reimbursement. 

Economics data from more DTx clinical trials will hopefully provide further evidence that these tools are worth investing in. 

But beyond that, framings of these patient-oriented aspects of these tools’ design do continue to emphasize the benefits to providers. Gamification can get them better follow-up data. Their treatments aren’t operating in a vacuum, and community-based psychosocial support ensures their targeted interventions have the best chance of keeping the condition at bay.

For chronic disease, the name of the game is management. But everyone from insurers to patients knows that quality management makes a huge difference in outcomes and cost, reducing readmission rates and improving overall health. 

We laud these new management tools and hope to continue seeing them integrating with existing chronic disease regimens—working toward integrated, whole-person approaches to disease for every patient.

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