Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Ready to play? The role of gamification in medtech innovation and public health


There’s more to games and apps than just entertainment, according to Jurriaan van Rijswijk, Chairman of the Games for Health Europe Foundation, a Dutch non-profit organisation that aims to make healthcare better (and more fun). Here, he tells Lorenz van Gool why more and more people are realising that gamification makes perfect sense in the medtech and health sectors

games for health

Something of a maverick, Jurriaan van Rijswijk was the first game consultant in the Netherlands and is an independent producer of more than 300 (serious) games, a serial entrepreneur and board member of the Dutch Games Association. He has lectured in serious gaming and information management, and was on the advisory board of TEDxMaastricht. van Rijswijk believes that improving healthcare is not just about developing better therapies or new medicines, but also about keeping people motivated to follow prescribed treatments. This is exactly where applied gaming comes into play, as one of its core qualities is the ability to change behaviour.

Applied games can be used for many different purposes such as therapy, prevention, recovery and rehabilitation, training and simulation, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness/conditions, cognitive functioning, education and physical fitness. Set up in 2010, the Games for Health Europe Foundation (GFHEU) works to encourage the development of health-boosting games and holds an annual conference that brings together medical professionals, game designers, business executives, angel investors, visionaries and dreamers all under one roof.

Starting out as an agricultural engineer, van Rijswijk learned to modulate complex ecosystems, creating models for weather and water. He discovered that by adding a visual layer to those models, people could interact with the data more easily. That discovery helps him to do what he does now: making complex matter manageable and easy to understand. ‘For 20 years, I think I learned how to make games instead of models,’ he explains.

According to van Rijswijk, it’s quite logical to apply gamification to medtech. ‘People are intrinsically motivated to play. Nobody has learned to ride a bike by reading a book – but by trial and error. In a gamified setting, they can experiment and make mistakes in a secure environment.’

The combination of tech and games solves an ingrained problem in Dutch healthcare: people don’t expect to pay much for their healthcare. An entire generation grew up with the idea of affordable healthcare, thanks to the state’s wealth supported by its natural gas supply. ‘Therefore, healthcare becomes less valuable,’ he says. ‘The great thing about games and tech is that it lets people spend more time with healthcare. And when you spend more time with something, it becomes more valuable to you.’

Games for health in the Netherlands

The Dutch community health service (GGD) sends out a countrywide questionnaire about the state of health each year. ‘We turned that into a game, which eliminates not only paper, but also 80 boring questions. Every question is a little quest. This way, we can check the health of people in real time, as you can constantly play the game. It makes something serious a bit less so and, of course, people like this more than filling in a form.’

According to van Rijkswijk, this approach isn’t just meant for solving public health problems. It also is applicable to the ’diehard’ world of medical innovations and medtech. ‘Gamification can really help to train health professionals. For instance, in handling complex machines for a surgery – let’s say, reattaching blood vessels. It isn’t about completing the surgery, but about how to operate the machine, how to get the skills you need. You can train this through a game. I see these kinds of games more and more throughout the medical world.’

Pokémon Go

van Rijswijk is particularly excited about two businesses that are forging ahead in health gamification – even if one didn’t start out with that intent. MyCognition brings science into everyday life, while Pokémon Go is a textbook example of gamification in health.

A Dutch comparison

How does healthcare in the Netherlands compare to other members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development? Check out our custom made infographic to find out!


MyCognition assesses people’s cognitive behaviour and maps those patterns with the help of several games, and then trains participants. ‘The beauty of this company is that it applies its knowledge to business and education as well. Why use it only on “sick” people, if it can work on “healthy” ones as well? It’s a great use of knowledge in healthcare applied to daily life.’

Juriaan van Rijswijk

Juriaan van Rijswijk

It’s also hard to neglect the global hype of Pokémon Go. Van Rijswijk sees a lot of people complaining about everyone being outside, walking around. According to him that’s the wrong way to look at the phenomenon (and many share this view).

‘Pokémon Go playfully contributes to people’s fitness. You play the game and, at the same time, you are exercising. The best part of it is you don’t play to move, but you move to play. It’s a common misconception about gamification and health… creators think fitness should be the basis of the game, while the opposite is true. The game should be the starting point. And with Pokémon Go, that’s executed perfectly. So while you wouldn’t say it in the first place, Pokémon Go can be considered as an example for all sectors, even medtech.’

Trends: applied games and substitution

As the frontman of GFHEU, van Rijswijk sees two big trends in eHealth today. First, a shift in the gaming industry from entertainment to applied games. While the entertainment industry has an estimated market size of $100 billion, the healthcare market is near $6,500 billion. Yet there are more gaming companies in the entertainment industry. ‘I expect a tilt towards games in healthcare, with the rise of so-called “applied games”. Right now, that market is ’only’ $10 billion, but it’s growing.’

Secondly, van Rijswijk says “substitution” is a hot theme this year in the medical world, in both services and tech. It’s no coincidence that substitution is the theme of GFHEU’s conference (31st October to 1st November). ‘Our observation: if you don’t substitute, healthcare eventually gets more expensive. You can’t just add extra layers of tech and services on top of existing solutions. Things get crowded that way, and it’s not good for the overall wellbeing of people. The more clutter, the less pleasant people’s experiences with healthcare are.’

Rethinking healthcare in medtech

As a former engineer, van Rijswijk has some constructive advice for the medtech sector. It’s about rethinking the concept of healthcare. ‘For a long time, healthcare has been considered to be in a state of sickness. But by redefining this to a state of health, people are more willing to pay for it. Nobody wants to pay for healthcare, but they are willing to pay for being healthy.’ van Rijswijk cautiously thinks a step ahead: ‘The next step in healthcare will be about feeling happy. eHealth and medtech businesses should eventually consider maximising happiness instead of maximising profits.’

About the author

Utrecht-based Lorenz van Gool is co-editor-in-chief of the Dutch blog StartupJuncture, as well as being a startup mentor.

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