Ice Buckets, Digital Health, and Patient Engagement

icebucket“Hi. My name is Brian, and I’m an Ice Bucket-aholic”. – “HI BRIAN”!

Yes I admit it. I’m a fan of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and I have watched most of the videos that have appeared in my Facebook stream. Let the intervention commence!

Over the last few weeks, Facebook has been inundated with a seemingly inexhaustible number of ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos. Reactions have ranged from wildly enthused and supportive, to cynically critical and downright angry.

One thing is certain – you can’t argue with results. According to the ALS Association, as of September 12th they have received over $112 million in donations since the challenge began. That is compared to about $3 million during the same period last year. Contributions have come from both their existing donor base, as well as more than two million new donors.

This is a huge affirmation of the power of Social Media to unite people around a common cause and drive positive action. What exactly was it about the Ice Bucket Challenge that made it such a colossal success, and what lessons can we as mHealth innovators draw from this viral phenomenon? Here are a few observations that might be worth consideration:

1. Make it Personal – There is perhaps no subject more personal that one’s health. We each have our own unique health story that colors our perspective on virtually every other aspect of our lives. Through the Ice Bucket Challenge, Facebook provided a platform for literally millions of people to feel connected to each other, both as audience and as storytellers. In short, it made ALS personal for everyone.The typical smartphone app business model is about mass appeal to as broad an audience as possible. After all, at $.99 a pop, it takes a LOT of downloads to make a profit. The irony of this approach is that it ignores the greatest advantage of mobile communications – the ability to engage on an individual basis. The opportunity for mHealth to leverage this capacity, and extend the reach of traditional “brick and mortar” care is unprecedented.

2. Make it Social – A significant contributing factor in the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge was its viral nature. When people saw their friends and relatives participating (and donating), it increased their desire and propensity to participate and donate themselves.There are plenty of examples of game apps that allow users to connect and compete with each other. The potential for applying this concept to improve health, through the creation of a virtual “care team” is HUGE. The power of shared accountability in driving social change is well documented. It is the foundational driver in the success of everything from Marathon training clubs, to weight loss and substance recovery programs. In short most people are more effective when there are others around to encourage, inspire, and hold them accountable.

3. Make it Fun! – Regardless of your personal stance on the Ice Bucket Challenge, you can’t deny that those first few videos of your friends and relatives dousing themselves in ice water were fun to watch!

Managing a chronic illness on the other hand, is the exact opposite. At best, it’s like carrying around a set of monogrammed luggage everywhere you go for the rest of your life. A daunting prospect for anyone. Injecting some fun into that management process, particularly if that fun activity contributes to improving adherence, can only be a good thing! Again, the concept of gamification is certainly not a new one. But the advent of mobile technology in healthcare opens up a wealth of opportunity to drive engagement by making the mundane a little more enjoyable.

The big question surrounding the Ice Bucket Challenge is whether or not the ALS Association, or any of dozens of other charitable organizations who are jumping on the band wagon, can make lightening strike twice. Can a viral social “event” be replicated? More importantly, can it be sustained over time? Or is this a one hit wonder? No one knows for sure – I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But I think that the prospects for leveraging mobile technology for improving health, health care, and quality of life are much easier to predict. And no ice buckets are required!




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