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Startups use tech, 'gamification' for public health problems

Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Business News

Matthew Loper’s mission to use technology and science to revolutionize health care began when he observed vastly different outcomes for relatives with the same disease.

The CEO and co-founder of Wellth, an app that incentivizes users to make healthy choices, like regularly taking medicine, had an aunt and an uncle diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

Even though the relatives share similar upbringing, education levels and genetics, his aunt thrived after her diagnosis by remaining vigilant about taking insulin and getting treatment, while his uncle faltered, had a stroke and wound up in a skilled nursing facility in 2016.

Loper, one of a bevy of entrepreneurs seeking to transform health care and insurance through technology, wanted to understand how the outcomes could diverge so extremely.

“How do you actually create motivation in people?” Loper said. “How do you get someone who never would have gone to see their doctor or taken those medications, or used that app, to actually follow through with it?”

Wellth, founded in 2014, seeks the answers by employing behavioral economics, which takes into account individual biases and how they affect decision-making. Users can earn small payouts, funded by Wellth clients that include medical groups and insurance companies, for doing things like taking their medication daily, a “gamified” feature that encourages habit-forming behaviors.

 

Streaks can earn participants more money — which can be spent only on things such as groceries, household needs, home repairs and auto costs — and users can spin a “prize wheel” every few days for a chance to win larger payouts. Gamification is used frequently by financial technology and other tech firms to upend traditional business models and capture market share.

Wellth has raised more than $11 million the past few years, boasts tens of thousands of users and has decreased hospitalization rates by as much as 40 percent in some populations, Loper said.

So-called digital health companies are attracting capital at an increasing rate, according to Megan Zweig, chief operating officer of the seed fund Rock Health. In the first nine months of 2021, these companies pulled in more than $20 billion in venture capital investment, up from $14.6 billion in 2020 and $7.9 billion in 2019, the firm said.

Whether digital health will drive better health outcomes largely remains to be seen, Zweig said, but the industry is already changing how people think about health care.

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