Focusing on Fun and Interactivity Can Improve Health Outcomes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about engaged patients and how they had lower healthcare costs and better health outcomes. While there is no one official definition of patient engagement, I see engaged patients as those who are interested in their health outcomes and who actively participate in their care by working with their healthcare providers to create goals.

Most healthcare professionals can attest that not all patients are necessarily engaged in their care. Some patients are very interested in achieving goals and outcomes and others don’t seem at all interested in participating in their care. How do we get those in the second group to become more participatory and invested in their care? Interactive patient care might be one way to get them on board.

Interactive patient care is a means of providing education to patients through technology like mobile devices and televisions. Interactive patient care allows patients to be active participants in their care rather than just passive recipients of information and instructions.

A June 2014 article in Healthcare Finance News, gives an example of interactive patient care at work. Boston’s South Shore Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital created a pilot project that used a mobile application to connect with cardiac rehabilitation patients. The app allowed patients to check daily to-do lists, to log exercise, to remind themselves to take medications, and to interact directly with clinicians. The project appears to have improved patient engagement and interaction. In the article, South Shore nurse manager Karen LaFond explained that while cardiac rehabilitation programs have been shown to decrease mortality rates, many patients don’t take part in them. However, patient retention and compliance with cardiac rehabilitation care plans have significantly improved when using mobile applications.

Another example of interactive patient care is GetWell Network’s pediatric tool GetWell Town.It was developed to help patients and families learn and play during their hospital stay. GetWell Town can be accessed at the patient’s bedside through an iPad or television and offers age-appropriate entertainment, education and other content. The system covers information on topics like asthma, diabetes and various procedures. The GetWell website describes the presentation of information as “colorful and interactive.” It certainly grabbed the attention of my 3-year-old who saw the website over my shoulder as I was typing this and asked, “Can we play that?”

Play, while not always technology based, is the ultimate form of interactivity and one physician is combining technology with old school play to combat childhood obesity. Dr. Robert Zarr’s, a Washington, D.C.-based pediatrician, approach to managing obesity was featured on NPR in July. To get children to increase their activity, he writes prescriptions for daily play and activity. To make the prescriptions more specific, he has mapped out all of the district’s 380 parks and developed a searchable database that can be linked to patients’ medical records.

Think about ways we can make health promotion fun. Wouldn’t having a cooking contest along the lines of Chopped (where you are provided mystery ingredients and have to create a great tasting dish) for diabetic patients be more interesting than just handing them a piece of paper that tells them to keep their carbs under a certain number per day? It might inspire them to get creative and have fun in their own kitchens coming up with recipes that meet dietary requirements. And that would help them better adhere to their diets.

Interactivity, and not just technological interactivity, may be the secret to getting patients engaged. Doing is infinitely more interesting than being talked at or just handed information. That’s why we do science experiments in school. Theory is one thing but seeing an idea in action, and being a part of that action, makes the concepts so much more concrete. Making the action fun just adds to the chances of success. That’s why nursery rhymes and the ABC song have been used as learning tools for decades.

My generation was raised on video games, even if it was Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man. My daughter’s generation is being raised on smart phone apps and tablet computers. We like technology that can provide us with fun and feedback. And no matter what age you are – from 80 to 8 – when learning is fun, no matter what form it takes, the information tends to stick and this leads to better health outcomes.

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Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ

Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ, is a registered nurse and journalist who has covered healthcare issues and how they relate to the nursing profession. She began her nursing career as a neuroscience nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and then transitioned to journalism after receiving a degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has edited and written numerous articles on a wide range of nursing and healthcare topics like Accountable Care Organizations, evidence-based practice and telehealth.

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