Trick or Treat: using mobile health to save one tooth at a time

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Photo credit: 
Zara Abraham

Every Halloween there seems to be another animated brushing campaign to save children from their own sweet tooths. For most, the goal is simple: better oral hygiene for kids.

PLAQUEMONSTER is different.

Developed by Jason Wang, director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention (CPOP) and a Center for Health Policy/Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR) core faculty member, and his team, PLAQUEMONSTER does encourage children to practice good oral hygiene. However, the true purpose of the app is to provide feedback on the user’s engagement that can be used for future forays into mobile health.

Smart phone users can download the application to create a “tooth pet” and help it grow by brushing and flossing daily. Neglect oral hygiene, and the tooth pet will grow dirty, become infected by “plaquemonsters,” and eventually end up in jail.

Using the game’s team mechanic, the app urges children to encourage their friends to brush and floss. Teammates can release a tooth pet from jail, so kids must hold each other accountable if they want their team to progress.

“The social aspect really does make a difference,” said Zara Abraham, a digital media specialist at CPOP and one of the app’s designers. She found that the app’s first child testers “would always be on the phone making sure that each one was doing their work, checking on their teeth.”

The social aspect is likely to engage children more than the average brushing and flossing campaign, according to Abraham. The app’s storyline also helps set PLAQUEMONSTER apart.

“The storyline we came up with was really sticking it to the man,” said Abraham. Developers set tooth pet up as a heroic rogue character who does what he thinks is right by eating healthy despite pressure to give in to Big Candy. Facing peer pressure to subsist on a diet of candy but also more serious pressure from “candy corporation,” tooth pet must expose the company’s nefarious practices so that teeth can be clean again. The game’s darker aspects and complex storyline may help make the game more accessible to older children and hopefully will keep kids engaged longer.

However, PLAQUEMONSTER is more than just a game, more even than a campaign for oral hygiene. Wang’s team hopes to use health literacy games along with demographic and engagement information to develop other mobile health apps. Ultimately, PLAQUEMONSTER is a tool for discovering how people engage with health on a mobile platform and how mobile health apps can improve health care.

Wang unveiled the mHealth app at Stanford Medicine's Population Health Sciences Colloquium last week.

“The spirit that Jason brings to the app is the game mechanics of behavioral economics,” said Manuel Rivera, product manager at CPOP.

Eventually, Wang’s team hopes to develop other mHealth apps that could aid patients with serious conditions, helping them to track their health and engage in their care plan. Wang’s long-term goal is for “people who are of working age and elderly to improve their quality of life and health trajectories” using mobile health.

If all goes well, PLAQUEMONSTER could be a first step toward active engagement between patients and health care using mobile platforms.

This project is supported by an NIH Director's New Innovator Award.