Revolutionizing health care
The Candy Crush Saga mobile app, in which players match colored candies with one another, is simple enough for a preschooler to play. Inconceivably, the app has been recently valued at $7.6 billion according to a March 12 New York Times article. Why is a mind-numbingly boring task so addictive to the human brain?
This can be answered by any “Introduction to Psychology” student; Candy Crush begins by allowing the player to advance through levels with relative ease, triggering the “reward” release of dopamine in our brains and reinforcing our actions. Gradually, the game gets harder and the “reward schedule” is disrupted—the player begins lose more than they win, triggering larger and larger dopamine releases with each subsequent win.
Gabriel Malseptic MBA ’14 and the chief operating officer of the tech start-up SQ Technologies and his co-founders had a revolutionary idea. Why not exploit the “Candy Crush effect” to promote productive and healthy human behavior, rather than mindless activity? Every human is a born addict, but perhaps we have a say in what we choose to be addicted to—and perhaps technology is the most powerful tool we can use to shape our addictions.
SQ’s mobile app, HealthIQ, “gamifies” health education on college campuses. Higher education institutions purchase subscriptions to the app, and students earn points by completing the health education curriculum and accessing their campus health resources. At the end of the semester, the students with the most points earn financial rewards.
Agustin Mohedas, an entrepreneur and engineer who earned his doctorate from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, is co-founder and CEO of SQ Technologies. Fah Sathirapongsasuti, who earned his doctorate from the Harvard University School of Public Health, is another co-founder and chief technology officer of SQ Technologies.
Ultimately, HealthIQ is designed to encourage college students to connect with the health resources available at their institutions—addressing issues of substance use, mental health, nutrition, fitness and sexual health.
According to Malseptic, the inherently competitive nature of selective colleges and universities creates an ideal environment for this approach to health education. Students are encouraged to compete in areas such as academics and leadership roles on campus—so why not compete in knowledge of a topic like sexual health?
“There are two types of people who play Candy Crush,” Malseptic said. “Those who find the game to be a blast, and those who are determined to get the next level.”
SQ has received recognition for their innovative ideas. In 2013 they were selected as one of the six finalists from a pool of 275 student-run startups from Harvard and MIT during a “Crimson on Cardinal” event. In January 2014, they were invited to join the Harvard Innovation Lab as a long-term resident team. In July 2014, they were semi-finalists for Verizon’s Powerful Answers Award.
Originally, the SQ team had a narrower vision for a mobile health app. The idea was born out of a health initiative that used text messages in Uganda to verify the HIV status of individuals. “You go to a health center, have the HIV test performed, and the results are sent to your phone. You then are able to show people [potential sexual partners] proof of your test results,” Malseptic said.
This concept faces complications with translation to a college campus, where social and sexual interactions are unique. According to Malseptic the prevalence of one-night stands render the test results inaccurate immediately after they are sent, confounding the goal.
The concept of HealthIQ was expanded to more generally address health issues in higher education, when the SQ Technologies team found that health care education on campuses was not meeting student needs. During development of HealthIQ, research took a variety of forms. “We did some focus groups, in which we talked to students about issues that interested them. We also ran some initial studies, where we released a very simple version of the app covering only two topics—stress and sleep,” Malseptic said. “We can see how people are responding with a great level of sensitivity. We aim to really capture the student’s attention,” Malseptic said.
The theoretical basis of HealthIQ’s behavioral model relies on the principle that in order for people to change their behavior, three crucial steps must occur: “First, motivation—whether or not a student is apt to pay attention to their own behavior, and if they have the desire to change it. Second, ability—do they have the self-efficacy to go forward and make changes in their life? And third— setting up triggers. These can be things like making a list every morning to hold yourself accountable to making changes,” Malseptic said.
HealthIQ can complement existing structures such as AlcoholEdu, the substance education course that many colleges require students to pass before allowing them to register for courses their freshman year. The extrinsic rewards provided by HealthIQ, such as money or gifts, might encourage more active and on-going involvement with campus health resources than a one-time program such as AlcoholEdu.
Why would a college or university be inclined to purchase this app for its students? With a rising college dropout rate and one in five females graduating having experienced sexual assault, issues of sexual and mental health for college students have become national issues. Institutions that demonstrate acuity in their approach to student health may gain an advantage in attracting prospective students.
Further, one would be hard-pressed to find a student who isn’t on or near their phone at this very moment. Phones are immediate, intimate and powerful venues for education. HealthIQ believes that mobile technology is the most effective tool with which to meet students where they are.
HealthIQ’s most recent pilot was at Bentley University, which Malseptic cites as an example of the type of institution where implementation is effective.
“[Bentley is] progressive, receptive and ambitious. It’s sometimes hard to get higher education engaged with new technology. We learned things from them, and they learned things from us. We have our fingers crossed that we can continue our relationship with them this fall and reach more schools,” Malseptic said.
SQ Technologies aims to connect with the students of 2014. Technology does not have to de-personalize our world—in fact it could be used to connect us more intimto our immediate surroundings.
“You’re going to have a great education, you’re going to be exposed to some of the brightest faculty and students in the country. But—what good will that do if you’re severely depressed and unable to do your work?”