PARIS — In just over a month, Pokémon Go has gone viral. And that success is a good illustration of what digital technology could do in order to help people exercise and take part in sports.

Increasingly, treatments for chronic physical conditions like obesity or diabetes include an arsenal of pharmaceuticals. But people also have to change their lifestyles (food, tobacco, physical activity, alcohol, etc.). And this is where Pokémon Go is an interesting case to study for the future.

A few years ago, such wearable pedometers as Fitbit, Jawbone and Withings were launched. With those new digital objects, not only serious athletes, but also those suffering from illnesses and health problems could measure their efforts, access statistics on their time spent walking or running and calories burned. Manufacturers even claim that these instruments motivated people to exercise more.

Quitting quickly

But collecting the data without giving them some kind of goal or meaning is useless. That is why many gave up quickly on those wearables. The challenge, in the sector of eHealth, is to provide some sense to the data in order to encourage patients to improve their health through physical activity and to sustain this effort for the long term.

Gotta walk to catch 'em all — Photo: Vichan Poti/Pacific PressZUMA

The interactive mobile game, Pokémon Go, recently launched, has prompted millions of people to walk kilometers and miles around the world in order to capture some Pikachu or Pidgey character. For example, the best way to hatch eggs in Pokémon Go is to walk a specific distance related to the Pokémon you're after. So across cities far and wide, gamers are roaming the streets, with their smartphone held out in front.

This simple digital game has had a bigger impact in terms of public health than countless public prevention initiatives. The lesson to be learned is this one: when raw data is integrated into a system that entertains rather than just delivering it to users, the potential is limitless.

This large-scale experiment of Pokémon Go opens the floodgates to more sophisticated prevention initiatives involving, for example, blood pressure measurement and blood parameters, tobacco consumption, or even diet, with a view to creating fun programs designed to help patients to care for themselves for the long term, rather than relying on personal guilt or public pressure. The key to getting the most out of eHealth opportunities is, in a word, gamification.