Klick Health

Can Pokémon Go Save Mobile Health?

VP Strategy

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The manic hunt for Jigglypuffs and Pikachus has millions of people wandering around like zombies, staring into their smartphones. What might this perfect storm of mobile tech, augmented reality, and gamification mean for healthcare? Let’s tap into the trend…

Last year’s controversial mhealth topic was the IMS Institute for Health Informatics report that revealed of the more than 165,000 health and wellness apps available, only 36 account for nearly half of all downloads. Insult to quantified self injury, the study went on to divulge that more than 40% have fewer than 5,000 downloads, and an overwhelming majority have limited to no functionality, and don’t connect to a device, biosensor, or provider system.

Fast forward less than a year and healthcare companies now can’t wait to place mobile ads on Pokémon Go. Memories are indeed short, but the phenomenon is truly unprecedented, fitness and mental health experts already alleging the numerous benefits to wellness. So obvious is the connection that a new “PokéFit” app integrates biometrics directly into the Go experience, logging calories, distance, and usage right from the central dashboard.

Making sense of the gaping delta between tens of thousands of mobile health apps that are essentially useless and the world’s most popular gaming app with ostensibly no overt healthcare purpose beguiles the most brazen of digital health strategists. Closing that gap between specialized functionality hardly anyone uses and entertainment apps with top engagement metrics could hold the key to making mobile health a success. But how?


Today’s Hottest App

For starters, how did Pokémon Go get developed, how does the app work, how’d it take over the world so quickly, and what can healthcare learn? The initial concept actually began as an April Fools’ day concept called “The Pokémon Challenge,” a collaboration between Nintendo, the Pokémon Company, and, surprise surprise, Google—based on Niantic’s groundbreaking multiplayer, location-based, online augmented reality game, Ingress.

After beta testing, the game started rolling out across the planet on July 6, 2016, ramping up throughout the month despite initial server glitches and other scheduling anomalies. An instant success, the game rapidly broke every record, within three weeks downloaded more than 75 million times worldwide, generating as much in revenue, with average daily usage on Android alone exceeding that of Snapchat, Tinder, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Beyond even the astonishing success of the app was its hype, which catapulted Nintendo stock to stratospheric levels, within five days of release increasing the company’s market value by $9 billion. The trend continued almost until the end of July, generating more than a quarter of all trades on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, by the 22nd culminating in a Nintendo market cap increase of $17.6 billion—until reality soon settled in and the stock plummeted.




As the financial markets reel, the global audience continues to hunt Pokémon unabated. Players establish an account—often without unknowingly handing Nintendo an alarming amount of personal information—and then create an avatar with options to select clothing plus hair, skin, and eye color. The avatar is then placed on a stylized Google map reflecting the player’s own location within a Pokémon universe of PokéStops and Gyms.

Game play consists of catching wild Pokémon of various species, and battling against other teams to ultimately capture all 151 original creatures. Pokémon appear on a player’s map, and when found become superimposed on an actual view of the physical surroundings using augmented reality technology in synch with the smartphone’s gyroscope. Caught by flicking a PokéBall at them, captured Pokémon award players candies and stardust to level up play.

That user experience helps explain the mystery of people wandering aimlessly around various locations, staring at their phones and gesticulating wildly—unless, of course, you’re one of those tens of millions of people already playing the game. Too successful, annoying, and dangerous to ignore, this perfect storm of entertainment and tech is only the beginning—and mobile health experts are already trying to apply its diabolical secrets.



Hindsight is certainly 20/20, and when it comes to success or failure in the arts the wise words of William Goldman will forever ring true: “Nobody knows anything.” But few deny Nintendo and especially Pokémon have significant name recognition and brand reputation behind them—everyone’s heard of “Pokémon.” So the mind is already conditioned and the heart responsive, both eager to be taken to a whole new level of interactive experience.

That’s the first lesson for anyone designing and developing a mobile health app: Without a preconditioned audience already responsive to an established brand name, the battle to cut through the clutter and be memorable enough for a second or third download is unlikely. For example, of the top fitness apps the big names dominate: Fitbit, Nike, and Map My Run; and the top medical apps feature Epocrates, Sanford Guide, and Human Anatomy.

As is so often true in digital, “build it and they won’t come”—but brand it well and they might. So consider partnership and sponsorship opportunities with authoritative, reputable, and well known academic, advocacy, or professional organizations. For pharma and medical device manufacturers these can be challenging, but worth the effort in terms of creating unbranded engagement opportunities patients and professionals instantly understand.



We already take mobile for granted, to the point desktop computers seem pure anachronism, and the very word “mobile” is a redundant cliché. Even harder to imagine a world of land line telephones, when a number was associated with a location, and not a person. Fast forward to the super computers we now carry in our pockets, instantaneous and global access to the world—and the world knowing exactly where we are, too, and what we need.

The incredible power of location-based services is exemplified by Uber, a company that owns zero automobiles yet has completely transformed the transportation industry. Enter Pokémon Go, a clever game that melds your personal map with an alternate gaming universe, creating a unique, real time, dynamic experience for each user. The convergence results in a reality that is part virtual, part physical, the one augmenting the other.

Mobile apps for the most part perform only a single function, if any. Geolocation and other personalized, self-identifying features are eminently beneficial, but fraught with challenges in the health space, especially regarding privacy and security. How and with whom personal data is shared is key, developers justifiably falling on the side of caution. But engagement is correlated with relevance, and user expectations have been forever piqued by the Pokémon.


Augmented Reality

Whereas “virtual reality” replaces the real world with a simulated one, augmented reality supplements the real world with computer-generated graphics, video, and sound to create a seamless montage of digital and actual experience. Incredible examples abound, ranging from games to educational tools to medical applications that masterfully use the tech to superimpose additional information onto the user’s real time sensory input.

In Pokémon Go the on screen map shifts to a camera view whenever a Pokémon is close, the digital creature superimposed on the environment and ready to be photographed and caught. As they do so, the 75 million and counting Pokémon hunters are literally on the go, traveling places they normally wouldn’t, walking more than they usually do, and increasingly interacting with the world in ways that are odd and pointless, but brimming with potential.

Pundits have already noted health benefits ranging from exercise to social interaction, improved cognitive abilities to mitigating the effects of autism. At the core of the experience is the nearby Pokémon creature, superimposed on the user’s surroundings—a reward digital health experts should note as a way to add dimensionality to health information and experiences, from the point of care to the surgical theatre to the patient’s own home.



The astronomical engagement of gaming is self-evident to any parent trying to coax their child off the PlayStation and on to their homework. The obsessive, almost hypnotic allure of gaming has hardly gone unnoticed by entertainment and media companies, who now rake in more money from video games than Hollywood from their films. Somehow bottling and selling that magic in other verticals seeking similarly focused audiences is endemic.

But designing great games isn’t easy, demanding the capture of the right balance between ease and difficulty, rewards and retribution. In healthcare, gamification has gone from holy grail to sheer hype, today landing with some hope. A persistent challenge is discovering ways to integrate gamification within a health system that remain stubbornly fragmented. People will blindly cross a street to capture a Jigglypuff, but try and get them to take their pills.

Perhaps the trick is to worry less about system integration, and concentrate more on app integration. As we’ve seen, Pokémon Go has taken over the world (at least for now) with an ideal mix of brand recognition, personalization, digitization, and gamification—a potent combo that not only suggests what’s possible, but has already raised the bar on user expectations. If mobile health is to survive and flourish, the craft needs to equally entice.


Klickemon Go

So what’s a pharma or device marketer to make of all this? At Klick Health, we’re already hearing from clients who sense opportunity in the astronomical engagement of these new gaming apps, but rightfully fear flying too high and too fast. So stay tuned for our exclusive Pokémon Go POV from Johanna Maulawin and the Klick Media Team, and rest assured that the world’s largest independent digital health agency will help you find what you’re looking for.


More About the Author

Michael Spitz

A digital health expert since before digital health was cool, Spitz has since developed omnichannel campaigns for top pharma and device brands, and helps drive agency innovation, digital transformation, and emerging channels. See him present at conferences, read his blogs, and follow him for the latest trends and opinions on Twitter @SpitzStrategy.

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