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“Pain squad” Mobile app gamifies cancer treatment for sick kids

Canada-based agency Cundari developed a mobile app that helps young cancer patients fill out necessary pain journals, with a little help from the casts of popular police dramas Flashpoint and Rookie Blue.

The doctors at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto aren’t playing any games in their efforts to stamp out cancer in young patients. Thanks to a creative solution from Toronto-based agency Cundari, though, patients at the hospital are in fact playing games, and it’s helping them get better.

Part of the treatment process at The Hospital for Sick Children (or SickKids, a leading pediatric oncology facility) involves patients keeping detailed pain journals every day. Unfortunately, children who have just undergone chemotherapy often feel too weak, tired, or discouraged to pick up a pen and do the work. Enter Cundari and its solution: the Pain Squad Mobile App, an iPhone touchscreen interface that not only makes it easy for patients at SickKids to fill out the journals, but also gives them a sense of purpose.

When kids at the hospital begin their pain journals, they are enlisted as part of Pain Squad, a “special police force” dedicated to ridding the world of pain. Twice a day, patients receive a dispatch from “headquarters,” informing them it’s time to file a report, which the touch screen makes easy. The more consecutive reports the young recruit fills out, the higher he or she ascends in rank.

Cundari, the only ad agency to answer an RFP from the hospital for an updated pain diary, worked with scientists from the Pain Centre at SickKids and developed the app in-house.

“We brainstormed concepts to engage the user while providing a platform to deliver critical data and presented these along with a traditional diary mockup to a number of kids for feedback,” says Cundari CCO Brent Choi. “The kids were excited by the detective theme so we developed the concept further to a dedicated Pain Squad. We could then introduce a narrative that enabled game mechanics–promotions and awards–that would improve compliance.”

Announcing those promotions and awards are members of the cast of Canada’s top-rated police dramas, Flashpoint and Rookie Blue. The team at Cundari filmed segments with actors from these shows, congratulating the patient for rising in the ranks of the agency, and thanking them for helping to fight against pain. In addition to the immersive nature of the game component, the Pain Squad narrative also creates a positive mission and purpose to the application. Instead of just collecting information, the kids were now fighting pain.

“From the beginning we worked to create intrinsic rewards and not rely on tangible incentives to drive compliance,” says Choi. “The idea of exclusive access to content only the kids can have had come up earlier and once the Pain Squad concept was fully developed, we put the two together. We reached pretty high to get celebrities involved to deliver on this. Their generosity was amazing. The project struck a chord for everyone involved.”

The pain diary app is currently in use at the clinic and will be tested in three other Canadian pediatric hospitals.

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