Using Gamification to Boost Health Literacy: Unexplored Opportunities

By April Miller, Senior Writer,
LinkedIn: April Miller
X: @rehackmagazine

Technology is making health care more accessible than ever. However, access to medical care is only helpful if people know when to see a professional or how to avoid health issues at home. Consequently, health literacy must improve for this growing accessibility to meet its full potential.

Roughly 80 million American people — more than one-third of U.S. adults — have limited health literacy. That must change if the nation hopes to achieve higher standards of care. Gamification may be the answer.

The Need for Better Health Literacy

Before diving into how gamification can boost health literacy, it is important to understand the scope of the problem. The widespread lack of medical knowledge has tangible health impacts. Experts estimate it costs the nation between $1.6 and $3.6 trillion annually, leading to increased hospitalization rates and poorer health outcomes.

The health literacy gap may also affect the efficacy of new medical technologies, especially consumer-facing innovations like wearables. That is because technology only yields improvements when implemented correctly, requiring a baseline understanding of what these devices do and why they help.

Patients with lower health literacy are less likely to use the available tools, including digital technologies that make care more accessible. Boosting literacy would help health care’s ongoing digitization reach its full potential.

How Gamification Helps

Given the poor state of U.S. health literacy, it is safe to say approaches to improvements must change. Conventional education measures aren’t producing ideal results. Gamification — applying game conventions like rewards and level progression — can help.

One of the biggest appeals of gamification is how it provides education without feeling like traditional learning. Consequently, gamified elements improve students’ initiative and enthusiasm to learn.

Video games have relied on the same principles for so long because they have proven high levels of engagement. Applying those engaging techniques to health education makes education more enjoyable, leading to greater participation, focus and comprehension.

Gamification also drives ongoing involvement. By tying rewards to desired behaviors, gamification gets people to perform these behaviors more often, eventually to the point of habit-building. In a health literacy context, it drives interest and participation in learning platforms or helps people develop health habits more easily.

Strategies for Gamifying Health Literacy

Health care organizations can approach gamification through several strategies. In many cases, gamified platforms’ efficacy varies between users, so combining multiple methods may yield the best results across all demographics.

1. Creating Health Apps for Children

One of the best health literacy gamification strategies is to create educational health games for children. Equipping patients with basic health knowledge earlier will promote better long-term results. Children also respond particularly well to gamified learning, especially compared to conventional education.

This strategy has already seen impressive results in the classroom. Education apps make learning fun through level systems and other gamified elements, driving participation and knowledge retention. Health care organizations could build similar apps that reward children for answering health questions or completing levels that teach them new health information.

Advertising these apps to parents, teachers and pediatricians would help get them into children’s hands. Young patients can then learn from them independently without needing to come to a hospital or clinic to use them.

2. Tracking Healthy Behaviors in Adults

Gamification should also target health literacy in adults. While adults may be less likely to use learning games, gamified elements like progression can still encourage engagement. One promising way to capitalize on this is through gamified behavior-tracking apps.

Using an app to set goals and track progress gamifies developing healthy habits — something many adults already want to do. Fitness apps like Strava have shown how this promotes real-world results, especially when using social features to add incentives. When runners on Strava notice more social engagement, they run more often and for longer in response to these rewards.

Medical organizations could add social features and a level system to diet apps, fitness trackers or other health goal-tracking platforms. Adding tips to promote better health literacy in these systems would simultaneously drive better overall health and related knowledge.

3. Tying Employee Training to Tangible Rewards

The workplace is another good area to target health literacy improvements. This even applies to the medical sector, where employees may have high health literacy but need more tech literacy to use EHRs and remote health platforms effectively.

Workplaces could use a similar system to other gamified fitness or learning apps to encourage employees to finish health literacy courses. However, they could add tangible rewards like cash bonuses to these tiers to make the gamification even more successful.

Cash is a powerful motivator but is not always the best reward, so organizations should weigh their options and employees’ personalities to determine the most effective reward. Whatever the specifics, though, adding tangible incentives will make participation in ongoing health literacy education much more likely.

Digital Technology Can Expand Health Literacy

As digitization expands health care accessibility, promoting patient independence and healthy behaviors is becoming increasingly important. Health literacy must improve for this trend to be as effective as possible, and digital tools are once again the solution.

Gamified apps and web platforms have already shown positive results in other sectors. Applying it to health literacy could be the change the industry needs.