Last year, Americans lost an estimated $119 billion gambling. Is there a way to use that betting obsession to make people . . . healthier?
Two anesthesiologists at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, Kerry DeGroot and Jason Hoefling, are developing an app that’s designed to do just that. Called Bushytail Health, it will use gambling’s natural appeal to help diabetics––and possibly other chronic-disease patients––manage their health issues.
“We thought about how to motivate [patients] and at the same time, hopefully, gain data,” says DeGroot. “And money is the only thing clinically found to motivate people to live healthier.”
Users can sign up for free via the Bushytail’s website or iPhone app, which is set for a beta release in April. The first step: establish the user’s A1C level––which gives a snapshot of a diabetic’s blood-sugar level. Next an algorithm––created by DeGroot and Hoefling––calculates a customized target A1C level per user. The user then receives a confirmation email with his personal goal level and a link to his “game.”
That’s where the gambling comes in. To play, users need to make a bet by putting up money as a buy-in. The dollar amount is up to them, but the money is real. That bet goes into a pot with wagers from other diabetics, all of whom try to hit target A1C levels within their game’s six-month course. Miss the mark and you lose your money. But if you make your goal, you get your bet back––plus a cut of any cash lost by other players.“We have no cap on the amount someone can bet,” says Hoefling. “For some people it only takes $1 to motivate them. For some it could take $1,000.”
DeGroot and Hoefling haven’t decided on whether they will take a cut of the pot themselves. For the beta release, they expect to rely on revenue generated via sponsored editorial content from places like the American Diabetes Association or by selling data collected from weekly emails that question users about their lifestyle changes. “After a while, all that data on all these patients––whether they win or lose––will be very valuable,” says DeGroot. “We will know where they succeed and where they fall down.”
After all the data is collected, the doctors can use it to create a treatment algorithm for diabetics. The algorithm will help explain why some patients become non-compliant and can determine the best ways to treat them. “If you can go into a healthcare system and tell them what they are doing wrong and what they can do better,” says DeGroot, “that’s big.”
The doctors came up with the idea for Bushytail through the MedStar Institute for Innovation (MI2)––a nonprofit partner of MedStar Health that uses doctors to troubleshoot hospital issues with innovative ideas. MedStar gets a 50% cut of the profits and retains intellectual rights, and the remaining 50% is split among DeGroot, Hoefling, and two other Georgetown anesthesiologists, Alan Kim and George Hwang.
“Because we started it in Medstar, we’re bound to them,” says Hoefling. “We can potentially benefit, but not tremendously.”
The idea of improving health through gambling isn’t a new concept. Studies from Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Mayo Clinic have shown financial incentives can work with weight loss and quitting smoking. Those who were offered money were twice as likely to quit smoking, and at least twice as many participants lost weight when offered cash for pounds compared to those who were offered no money.
Fitness apps like Pact and DietBetter were born from these studies. While those apps help people lose weight using a similar betting concept, the difference with Bushytail is its verification process, which makes cheating difficult. The company requires gamers to use certified lab reports to prove their A1C levels. For now, patients have to download a notarized copy of their lab report from the lab’s patient portal and submit it into the Bushytail app or website. “By using these lab reports we can validate almost every aspect at every point,” says DeGroot. “Hopefully as our relationship with the labs develops, transporting data will be more seamless.”
If this idea takes off, the doctors hope to expand the games to tackle other chronic conditions like hypertension and high cholesterol. “Chronic disease patients don’t take care of themselves because they don’t feel sick,” says DeGroot. “If we get [diabetics] to join the game and find out what needs to be adjusted and where it needs to be tweaked, then we can help others down the road.”