Innovation & Technology

Diabetes Is No Fun, but It Can Be a Game


Luke Wessel was four years old when he figured out how to hide the glucose meter his parents used to monitor his diabetes. He associated the device with uncomfortable finger pricks needed to test his blood sugar, so he hid the meter under rugs or beneath his mattress. "It was like an Easter egg hunt every day," says his father, Paul Wessel, an inventor and entrepreneur. In contrast, Luke treasured his Nintendo (NTDOY) Game Boy—which gave his dad an idea: How about a video game that would reward Luke for every drop of blood he drew?

Wessel's brainstorm is now a commercial product backed by German health-care giant Bayer (BAYRY), which purchased the company Wessel founded and brought him on board to launch Didget, the first glucose meter that plugs directly into a game console. Didget went on sale in the U.K. last year. And while Bayer says it's too early to gauge its success, the company plans to roll it out in the U.S. in May.

Keeping things simple is crucial to Didget's formula. Once the meter has taken a reading, the user syncs it with a Nintendo DS handheld—the successor to the Game Boy—and boots up an adventure game called Knock 'em Downs World's Fair. The program rewards players for performing a prescribed number of tests each day by bestowing points that speed the player through the game. Additional points are earned for staying within target blood-sugar ranges, which parents can program in. "There used to be days when I didn't want to test," says George Dove, 12, of Nottingham, U.K., who must use the meter as many as eight times a day. "Now, it's fun."

Bayer executives are counting on Didget to help them regain the lead they won, then lost, in the $7 billion-a-year diabetes testing market. The company created the first blood-glucose meter in 1973 and dominated the market for the next 20 years, says Sandra Peterson, president of Bayer's Medical Care unit in Tarrytown, N.Y. In the late 1990s, Bayer had as much as 40% of the market. By the time Peterson was hired in 2005, its share had dwindled to 10%. Roche (RHBBY) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) have 25% each, according to consultants IMS Health (RX).

NEW DIRECTION

Nearly 24 million Americans suffer from diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of which just under 1% are younger than 20. The American Diabetes Assn. expects the total number to double over the next 25 years, which means there will be many more pediatric patients dependent on insulin. Other nations are grappling with epidemics of similar proportions.

When Peterson took charge of the Bayer unit, her first move was to hire a new team and spell out a clear mandate. "We had to understand the customer. We couldn't just emulate what others were doing," she says. Bayer boosted the technical capabilities of its meters by shortening the time it took to get results and making the displays more readable. Sales of Bayer's Ascencia Contour meter jumped 53% last year, according to IMS. But what Bayer really needed, Peterson decided, was a whole new direction.

Didget and the partnership with Nintendo fit the bill—and presented new challenges. If diabetes patients purchase an ordinary glucose meter, most insurers provide full coverage. Games are another story. Prices for the Nintendo DS system range from $125 to $200, none of which is likely to be reimbursed. On top of that, the meter and game will retail for $75, and only a small portion of that is expected to be covered by insurance.

The Bayer-Nintendo alliance is part of a broader push by the drug industry to harvest good ideas from unconventional sources, says Carolyn Buck Luce, global pharmaceutical leader for consulting company Ernst & Young. In November, Sanofi-Aventis U.S. (SNY) launched an iPhone app called GoMeals, which helps diabetics track the nutritional content of foods they eat and locate restaurants that serve meals in keeping with their dietary restrictions. The app, which is free, has been downloaded 63,000 times. Games and apps "represent a major shift from being product-centric to being patient-centric," says Buck Luce.

The video game industry has been pushing into health-related entertainment for more than a decade. One of the first efforts around diabetes was a 1995 game for Nintendo systems called Packy & Marlon, featuring two diabetic elephants who taught kids the importance of maintaining glucose levels. Among children who played it over a six-month period, emergency-room visits dropped by 77%, according to a 1997 paper published in the journal Medical Informatics by communications expert Debra Lieberman, one of the game's developers. Diabetic youngsters in the study who played standard shoot-em-up fare showed no such results. If anything, staying glued to a sofa went against doctors' efforts to promote active lifestyles. For that reason, "a lot of families thought video games were evil," says Lieberman, now director of a program called Health Games Research, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In the end, Packy & Marlon didn't meet sales expectations. "It was a fabulous science story and a not-so-fabulous business story," the researcher says.

In 1998, Japanese game company Konami launched Dance Dance Revolution, a music game for arcades that tapped into a physical fitness craze in Japan and the U.S. By 2005, global sales of the game in arcades and on consoles exceeded 7.5 million units. The next year, Nintendo released Brain Age for the DS system, aimed at improving baby boomers' mental acuity. The game sold upwards of 8 million units in its first year.

CHANGE THE CONTENT

Bayer's approach weaves a painful task, blood testing, right into the entertainment. Since launching Didget, Peterson's team has spent months talking to doctors, parents, and children to help refine the product and marketing plan in advance of its U.S. debut. Among the lessons learned: The content should be updated every six to ten months to hold children's attention, says Richard L. Stadterman, a vice-president of global research and development for Bayer. Some caregivers may be worried about their kids' sedentary behavior, but it's not a deal-breaker, he says. "Parents will do anything to help their children control their disease. They'll spend anything."

Paul Wessel, who had to mortgage his house three times while developing the first iteration of Didget, is pleased to see his brainstorm bearing results. "These children are kids first. They have diabetes second," says the inventor, who retired from Bayer last year. The illness doesn't have to ruin their lives, he adds. "I hope we can make the kids see that."

With Naomi Kresge


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