Patients often forget to take their medications, but Walgreens is betting it can change that by turning the drudgery of drug-taking into a game.
Walgreens plans to announce Tuesday that it will work with Connecticut-based HealthPrize Technologies to offer a digital health program aimed at helping patients stick to their medications.
Patients who take certain drugs will be able to go to the Walgreens website to sign up for the free program, which awards points for taking medications on time, refilling prescriptions and taking educational quizzes about their conditions and medications. Participants will be able to redeem points for discounts on health-related products at Walgreens and see how their point totals stack up to those of other anonymous “players.”
Walgreens already has a number of ways patients can choose to be notified to take their medications and refill prescriptions. But this is the Deerfield-based company’s first foray into using games, or gamification, to try to improve medication adherence, said Greg Orr, senior director of digital health for Walgreens.
“It’s a much more rich experience,” Orr said.
Initially the program, which could start by the end of this year, likely will be limited to people with diabetes who take certain medications. HealthPrize is in “deep discussions” with a number of pharmaceutical companies, which must sign on as sponsors in order for their drugs to be a part of it, said Tom Kottler, CEO and co-founder of HealthPrize. Orr said Walgreens is confident pharmaceutical partners will sign on soon. Kottler said he could not discuss which drugmakers HealthPrize is in talks with.
The Walgreens program will be available on the Walgreens website and will be mobile-friendly, but will not be available through an app, Orr said.
Medication adherence has been a huge problem globally and in the U.S.
The World Health Organization estimated in 2003 that only half of people with chronic illnesses in developed countries took their medications as prescribed. Such nonadherence is responsible for an estimated $290 billion in avoidable medical spending each year in the U.S., the New England Health Institute said in 2009.
Kottler said HealthPrize has had success with its program, which some pharmaceutical companies already offer to patients taking their drugs. On average, patients using the programs log in 4.6 times a week and spend more than 38 minutes a month on them, Kottler said.
HealthPrize also has found that age doesn’t seem to play as big a role as some might suspect in how much patients use the programs. HealthPrize ran one program for acne patients where the average user age was 21 and another for cholesterol patients where the average age was over 70. Kottler said the older group actually engaged more often with HealthPrize than the younger one.
“We see almost no difference in the levels of engagement in our ability to educate patients, and patients’ ability to use our tools, between teenagers and senior citizens,” Kottler said. “That’s because the ideas we use around gamification and behavior economics are universal to people.”
Amisha Wallia, an endocrinologist at Northwestern, said medication adherence is a significant issue when it comes to people with Type 2 diabetes. Patients who fail to control their blood sugar can face long-term problems such as eye disease, kidney disease and nerve issues in their lower extremities. Sometimes patients don’t take their prescribed drugs because they can’t afford them, because of the side effects or because they get too busy, and it slips their minds, she said.
Technology-based programs that aim to improve medication adherence can be effective but have to be studied individually to know for sure, said Wallia, who is on the community leadership board of the American Diabetes Association, which has a number of programs supported by Walgreens. Wallia is also a co-investigator on a study in which Walgreens is a member of the team, but Walgreens is not funding the study nor paying Wallia.
Wallia said she tries to help her patients stick to their meds by making sure the drugs are covered by patients’ insurers, that patients can afford them and by educating patients about how they work and their side effects.
HealthPrize is not the only company that offers gamelike programs to improve medication adherence, but Orr said Walgreens chose HealthPrize because of its track record and existing relationships in the industry.