3 Ways Video Games Are Revolutionizing Health Care

Video games and health care are two big industries rarely mentioned in the same sentence. After all, video game consoles like Nintendo's (NASDAQOTH: NTDOY  ) Wii and Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) Xbox One don't seem to share much in common with mainstream medicine.

Yet video game consoles and gaming concepts can also be valuable tools for physical therapy, telehealth, and personal fitness. Here are three surprising ways video games could revolutionize health care.

1. Therapy and Wii-habilitation
Many modern video games are criticized for their violence, which some psychologists link to aggressive behavior. Yet video games can also be used to aid patients, thanks to their fun and immersive qualities.

Nintendo's Wii, with Wii Fit and a balance board. Source: Flickr.

Nintendo's original Wii, which launched in 2006, has been so frequently used to help patients with physical trauma that its use has been dubbed "Wii-Habilitation." In the past, patients recovering from strokes, broken bones, surgeries, and other injuries needed to do traditional physical therapy (PT), which consists of repetitive stretching and lifting exercises.

Using the Wii's motion controller in interactive video games like Wii Sports helps patients overlook the stressful monotony of PT. The Wii's balance board, which was released in 2007, can also be used to treat balance-related disorders. Moreover, the Wii Fit software, which tracks a user's height, weight, and previous records, makes it easy for physicians to track a patient's progress.

2. The Xbox One as a telehealth device
Microsoft's Kinect, which was originally developed for the Xbox 360 and later launched for Windows and the Xbox One, represents a big step up from the original Wii. Whereas Wii users need to hold a physical controller, the Kinect uses depth-sensing cameras to track a user's movements for a fully hands-free experience. The advantages of using the Kinect instead of the Wii for PT are obvious -- patients can now do full-body workouts in a wider variety of virtual environments.

The second generation Kinect for Xbox One. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a previous article, I discussed the Kinect's capabilities as a telehealth device. Through Avanade, a joint venture with Accenture (NYSE: ACN  ) , Microsoft connects Skype video chat and its HealthVault EHR (electronic health record) software to the Kinect, allowing a physician to use the Kinect's motion tracking abilities to remotely monitor a patient.

Meanwhile, a group of researchers at MIT recently developed a technology that enables the Xbox One Kinect to detect a person's heart rate just by the changes in the colors on the skin. It can also measure the heart rate variability of an individual, which can help diagnose conditions such as stress and depression.

Now imagine if that technology could detect changes in eye and skin color to identify jaundice, or see changes in the contour of the neck to diagnose lymph node problems -- and it's easy to see how the Kinect could revolutionize telehealth in the near future.

3. The gamification of personal fitness
Anyone who has played a video game lately knows the importance of "achievements". Companies like Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) , Jawbone, and Fitbit noticed that obsession and subsequently "gamified" personal fitness with fitness bands.

Nike's FuelBand uses an accelerometer to record movements throughout the day and rewards the user "Nike+ Fuel" based on the day's physical activity. The brilliant aspect of "Fuel" is that it compresses data such as steps walked and calories burned into an easy-to-understand virtual point system.

The FuelBand is then paired to an Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) iOS app, which records the users' health data over time with charts, and rewards them with cute animations or achievement badges when certain goals are met. Users can also view their friends' progress throughout the day and compete against them. Nike's approach with FuelBand is similar to physicians using the Wii as PT -- it makes exercise feel less like work and more like a game.

However, fitness bracelet makers aren't the only ones to embrace gamification. Major health insurers such as Aetna, Cigna Health, UnitedHealth, and Wellpoint have all launched games to encourage a variety of wellness initiatives including smoking cessation, physical activity, and better eating habits. These games are browser or mobile app based, and offer similar rewards as Nike's FuelBand -- points, badges, and status progression.

Blue Shield's MeYou Health. Source: Company website

The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, video game consoles and the concepts introduced by gaming have gained a lot of attention in the health care industry. Video games can't cure serious diseases or replace broken body parts, but they are playing pivotal roles in improving physical therapy, telehealth, and personal fitness. More importantly, they are improving the quality of care and are helping motivate people, both mentally and physically, to get better.

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