Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pokemon Go helps cancer patients get going

Cindy Walker, 58,is living with borderline ovarian tumors and tumors on her lungs. She is probably not the demographic that Niantic Lab envisioned when it launched Pokemon Go, but Walker is a fan who says that the mobile game helps with her health.

The Sacramento, California-area resident said she looked for ways to motivate herself when two of her doctors recommended exercise to boost her immune system. Walker had been playing Ingress, Niantic Lab's other augmented-reality game, so she was familiar with how Pokemon Go worked.

Once she began playing Pokemon Go, she didn't expect the variety of benefits she's observed. "It's been fun, and it continues to be fun," Walker said. "There are the physical benefits to all the walking as you play the game, but there's such a social aspect to it as well."

What's been described as the "fastest growing unintentional health app" has launched at a time when intentional health app usage is starting to make strides.

At Inspire, we recently completed our second annual Inspire member survey, with mobile health being one of the topics covered. Half of all respondents reported using smartphones with mobile apps as tools to assist with their healthcare. In comparison, our inaugural survey from early 2015 found only 38% said that they had ever used these solutions to assist in managing their health conditions. There were no notable demographic differences (such as age, gender, types of conditions they manage) in the patients who responded to the two surveys.

As one would expect, smartphone/app usage was more common among a younger audience -- 50 years old or younger. However, even older respondents who have access to mobile devices are attempting to leverage this technology.

While adoption of smartphone technology in the healthcare arena seems to be picking up, potentially by leaps and bounds, there are still various issues that limit widespread usage.

Some survey respondents cited a lack of smartphone ownership because of the high cost of both acquisition and ongoing data access as their own barrier to using  this technology. Those on fixed incomes most frequently cited this concern.

Some members expressed concerns about their privacy, both over the web as well as locally on their device in the event someone else accessed it. We've seen similar concerns regarding the data-mining elements associated with Pokemon Go in some member-to-member discussions on Inspire.

Both consumers and developers alike acknowledge that first generation mobile health solutions were not as engaging as they needed to be. Despite the improvements that have been made with more recent apps, there is a certain audience that is now hesitant to use these platforms. It's apparent Pokemon Go has the right combination of features and is attracting even older users with life-altering illnesses.

In recent discussion strings on Inspire, some members with cancer touted the health benefits, both physical and mental, of playing Pokemon Go. One member, a North Carolina woman with metastatic lung cancer, told us the game has given her another connection with her Pokemon-playing teenaged children. She added that it's a diversion from thinking about her cancer.

"When you are suddenly faced with a terminal disease you look for diversions to keep your mind occupied instead of thinking, 'How much time do I have left?'" the woman said. "I have stage IV lung cancer. I still work full time, and cook and clean. Those are diversions--but not really fun. They are exhausting.

"Pokemon Go is silly," she went on. "It prompts me to get up and moving at the end of the day and lighten up a little. Combine that with the added connection and laughter with my kids, and it's a home run for me."

Dave Taylor is director of research for Inspire, and John Novack is Inspire's communications director. Inspire is an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for over 800,000 patients and caregivers.

Read more Diagnosis: Cancer here »