Health IT

How an avid gamer is helping UnitedHealth cut costs, make members healthier

Arrianne Hoyland, 33, likely didn’t imagine that her passion for video games would one day find an outlet in her profession.

And yet that is exactly what happened at her corporate IT job at health insurance company UnitedHealth Group. Hoyland, 33, went from being a business analyst helping to establish a claims adjudication system to being a game producer/designer roughly when her boss’ boss noticed her creative streak and didn’t think she was crazy when she would ask questions like “what if we could design games that would let teens think more seriously about their health” she recalled. Instead he began to solicit her opinions in brainstorming sessions.

Then in 2010 it became official when Hoyland got a new title – game producer within the Innovation, Research & Development, group in corporate IT.

But the title of game producer/designer in an industry that traditionally has been the antithesis of fun and excitement – “staid” is probably how many will describe the managed care industry – is an indication of a broader shift afoot in the overall healthcare sector.


That shift is an understanding that in order to rein in healthcare costs, the focus should be on prevention, and health and wellness. And to do that requires individuals to be involved in their own health. That means businesses need to interact with consumers in an engaging manner.

That’s where gamification comes in.

“Gamification means making making something historically boring or difficult engaging and more interesting and immersive,” Hoyland said. “Providing compelling content to consumers that is more directed at them in fun, engaging ways can make healthcare a natural part of their life. So I think gamification …incenting them to make better choices can be really powerful.

For instance, Hoyland talked about her work with a web-based program called Baby Blocks. The program was meant to encourage pregnant women on the company’s Medicaid program – – attend prenatal appointments and later the “well child” doctor visits.

These women needed to be given an incentive to make it to their appointments and so Hoyland and others devised a program by which each time they would attend a doctor’s appointment, they would unlock a “Baby Block” and get something.

“The game board has unlockable baby blocks and so each time they unlock those blocks by going to their first trimester visit or month 4 visit they are sent a gift. It could be a pack of diapers or something else for the baby. It could even be something for themselves,” Hoyland explained. “It increases the rates of prenatal as well as postpardum and well child visits and it improves the member experience and chance of retention.”

She noted that the program saw “a significant increase in attendance compliance” in the pilot.

Hoyland also played a significant role in the development of the OptumizeMe app for smartphones and tablets that allows people to create challenges for friends, co-workers, family and even strangers so that everyone can get healthier, lose weight.

Hoyland is also working on ways to get Microsoft XBox and Kinect to harness the power of exergaming. A prototype with an application in physical therapy has been developed in house for use with PCs can help patients track their exercises and the video capability allows their physical therapists to see whether the exercises are being done properly.

“It’s got skeleton tracking capability that detects and corrects exercises in real time. It uses voice commands, has video capabilities,” explained Hoyland. “Historically it’s been pretty tough to get folks to do their exercises and another thing that physical therapists don’t have insight [on] is to who is doing their exercises, if they are doing them correctly. So this way the patient can do them correctly, track when and how many exercises they have done and we are hoping that this application helps people who have to go through physical therapy or occupational therapy get faster, better.”

Other prototyoes are also being developed, Hoyland said. However, she declined to talk about them.

For Hoyland, the transition from IT to game producer did have its unexpected moments.

“It’s interesting because I expected such a huge pushback. I expected frowny faces and people thinking that I was nuts,” Hoyland said. But when you look at how many gamers there are in the world …the guy in the stuffy suit is playing “Bejeweled” on the side,’ she said of her experience at UnitedHeatlh Group.

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