August 1

Kyle Poplin

Can Pokemon Go Augment Global Health Reality?

People all over the world are wandering around, mumbling to each other, staring at their smartphones while hoping for a fanciful discovery.

Think we’re talking about people playing Pokemon Go? We’re not. We’re talking about people trying to capitalize on people playing Pokemon Go. Included in this group are global health practitioners.

It’s probably necessary here to explain the game to the ever-decreasing number of global citizens who are not familiar with the Pokemon “ecosystem.” Pokemon, a Japanese media franchise launched in the ’90s, revolves around hundreds of creatures of various shapes and sizes, which human “trainers” capture and train to battle each other in a vast array of video and trading card games, animated TV shows, books and movies. Pokemon Go uses your smartphone’s camera and GPS to let you find and capture – via augmented reality – Pokemon that have been placed near you.

In short, it’s difficult to explain the history and mechanics of Pokemon Go to non-gamers. Even harder to explain, however, is why, despite the lack of fame or monetary reward for those who play, lives are being lost in the effort to “catch ’em all.”

But there’s no denying that since Pokemon Go was released in the U.S. on July 6, it’s become a global phenomenon on par, some say, with the iPhone … and with similar brand marketing opportunities.

None of this is lost on the people who make global health their business. They can remember another fad that turned out to have lasting health benefits – the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that peaked two summers ago and helped scientists discover a new gene tied to Lou Gehrig’s disease – and they’ve been intrigued by the  “accidental exercise” that Pokemon Go spins out.

We wondered if they also had hopes about the viral craze helping to amplify their message, raise money and/or recruit volunteers and patients. So we reached out to some of NextBillion’s recent health care writers, asking them if they’ve thought of any practical applications Pokemon Go might have in global health and the work that they do, day to day. Here’s what they had to say:


Saving Doctors’ Time

“The game Pokemon Go is not available in India yet but people can download the Android application package. India has a large and growing number of smartphone users so there is definitely potential for the concept of augmented reality to play a role in health care.

“One area in which it could be especially useful is in ensuring access to health care information and data for the right people at the right time. Given the acute shortage of doctors and the burden on the public health system, time could be saved for doctors if augmented reality notations can provide vital information about a patient as opposed to them having to got through several reports and charts before looking at the patient. Another area is ensuring that patients understand their diagnosis and treatment-related information completely. Because of shortage of time doctors are often not able to spend adequate time with every patient. In such situations the patient’s phone could listen to the conversation and provide a simple explanation of what was said using an augmented reality translation. The challenge will be to develop these applications while ensuring simplicity of use and data security.”

Urvashi Prasad, founder, Every Voice: Stories From the Bottom of the Pyramid


A Hazardous legacy?

“Gaming as an intervention for behavior change or data collection hinges on sustained activity (versus one-time use), and Pokemon Go strikes me as a fad that will fade just like its playing-card predecessor (in fact, its daily active users are already declining). While there is certainly some promise for augmented and virtual reality in global health – like medical training, storytelling, public health education, etc. – I think the app’s only real global health impact will come in the form of road traffic accidents and cliff falls.”

Adam Lewis, communications and marketing manager for Gradian Health Systems


Don’t Overlook ‘Low-tech Solutions’

“For the people we reach, the phone, internet and data necessary to operate Pokemon Go just isn’t accessible. But, let’s assume for a second it is. Even if we were able to attract someone to a health clinic who is otherwise resistant, we would still need compelling health messaging that applies to them, makes them feel safe and convinces them to come inside. Once there, we need high-quality services and an environment that makes them want to return. In so many developing countries, we have seen significant progress in public health indicators that has arisen because of extremely low-tech solutions – a health worker reminding you to take your TB medication, oral rehydration therapy, a safe birth kit that costs 40 cents. Let’s keep up the proven, low-tech solutions to strengthen health systems in developing countries, and if, down the line, Pokemon Go becomes accessible, at least we’ll have adequate services to connect people with.”

Emily Coppel, senior marketing and communications associate, BRAC USA


Gotta Sponsor ’em All

“A technique that could be utilised for global health, or in fact for any other good cause, would be by getting relevant companies to sponsor some of the Pokemon Go targets, and with a daily challenge get the players to collect a set number of sponsored targets within a period of time. This would unlock a reward of the sponsoring company to donate one of their products to someone in need. For example, Pfizer could sponsor a challenge of five targets within 24 hours, which would enable the player to donate one antimalarial vaccine through an agency in Africa. The player would feel good about him/herself and also be motivated to complete that challenge, Pfizer would get to advertise and conduct CSR (corporate social responsibility) through the same sponsorship, and Pokemon Go obviously would make their revenue.”

Jugal Parekh, co-founder, JJD Innovations (a health care services and medical device design consultancy)


Boosting Engagement for Health Care Apps

“While this game is picking up among the young, urban crowd, there is very little pick-up outside of that demography in India. … There is much to learn from this game for any team that is delivering solutions to masses. I think the ideas in Pokemon Go could be used to not only develop better health care apps, but create a level of engagement that we have not been able to do to date.”

Ashim Roy, founder and CEO, uber Diagnostics


A Tool to treat ADHD, PTSD, Depression

“Pokemon Go could be used to help kids with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This could be done by tailoring specific information to each child, in a way that is engaging and would capture their attention by offering real-world applications of classroom knowledge. It could also be used to help veterans struggling with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) by stimulating parts of their brains through activities that could help them feel reintegrated with the world around them. Pokemon Go could also help folks struggling with clinical depression, by incentivizing them to engage in activities that could lift their spirits.”

Max Chinnah, CEO, Terraoak (cookstoves)


An Incentive for Follow-Up Care

“(It could be used to) make mothers go to the health facility (with their children) for vaccination campaigns, well-baby visits and so on; make people on TB or Hep C treatment go to their next follow-up visit to ensure compliance with long-term treatment; offer financial benefit in the form of free or discounted treatment for diabetics or hypertensive patients if they reach defined levels of physical activity (link the game with a step counter).”

Andreas Seiter, senior health specialist – Pharmaceuticals, World Bank


mental health opportunity

“The global health community can leverage this opportunity by providing tips to improve mental health at strategic Pokémon stops and even step it up a notch by nudging the app developers to include progress health reports for players, which will encourage them to keep playing and implementing the tips provided at the Pokémon stops.”

Oghenerukeme Asagba, from Lagos, Nigeria, and a recent graduate of Cornell University with a degree in human biology health and society, and a minor in global health


Kyle Poplin is editor of NextBillion Health Care.

Photo by Sadie Hernandez, via Flickr.



Health Care
business development, marketing and advertising, media and entertainment, public health