Stop playing games with health care

November 4, 2013, 4:46 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Several months ago, I sat in on a case competition at Boston University’s School of Management. The event played out over two days, during which 15 teams of five students from B-schools all over the world — India, South Korea, Canada, but mostly the U.S. — pitched their ideas for a company, one that would revolutionize health care (the stated goal was particularly jargon filled: “to leverage information technology to transform global health care and create value”).

The competition was sponsored by Merck (MRK) and Microsoft (MSFT); both companies sent representatives to judge the teams. Real money was on the line, too: The team with the best idea received a check for $22,500, plus the blessings and support of two multinational corporations to start up their startup. I was interested in seeing what bright MBAs-to-be were dreaming up as viable business solutions to different health care crises, and what a huge pharmaceutical and tech company thought of the ideas.

Immediately, a theme emerged, and the theme was games. “How do we gamify health care?” a presenter on one team asked, rhetorically, after listing off the growing toll chronic diseases take in both developed and developing nations (one shocking diabetes statistic she mentioned was that, in India, “only 50% are aware they have the disease, 50% of that group have access to treatment, and just 50% again adhere to their treatment, which means that about 50% again — or less than 3% — achieve some kind of normalized life”). One of the many difficulties in treating chronic diseases is that one must adhere to a strict medical regimen and see it through to the end of its prescription. Chronic disease demands chronic medication. Taking medication is no fun, but the idea that it might be made a game is, at least, as old as Mary Poppins. The cost of not adhering to the full prescription of drugs is hundreds of billions of dollars in ongoing medical expenses, to say nothing of all the money lost by a drug manufacturer like Merck. At the BU case competition, the solution to patient recidivism wasn’t a spoonful of sugar but an app on your smartphone, an app that was, without fail, some kind of a game.

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As the day wore on, one of the Merck representatives finally asked, in exasperation, “Why would you make a game out of taking a pill? This will never be fun,” which is true. When the goal is good health, the “upshot should simply be getting well,” she added. Smartphone drug regimen apps seem to help the most tech-savvy and pliable group of all: children (I wrote about one such study, and the dearth of good data on health apps, a few months ago). Other teams argued that the data gleaned from users playing games, competing for arbitrary points to improve their diets or take their drugs, would help pharmaceutical companies design better drugs. “I don’t see that happening,” another Merck rep said, flatly.

The goal, the Microsoft and Merck judges all agreed, was to create an experience that requires as little input from the patient as possible. If a user must list their meal, or record what they take, when they take it, well, all of this is an opportunity to lie to your phone, or simply skip one of many steps the app demanded. Just because it’s called a game and looks like a game does not guarantee that it will be any fun.

A winner had to be announced by the end of day two, though I was growing weary and skeptical. How refreshing, then, when a team presented an idea startlingly different from all the others. It wasn’t a piece of software at all, but a backpack, filled with durable hardware (solar powered battery charger, lensless microscope, blood diagnostic tests, pulse oximeter) for collecting vital, and valuable, health data. The team was focused on collecting data from the developing world, where much of the population goes unrecorded, but the concept would work in the U.S., too, or anywhere else with people who have limited access to health services.

Do I even need to say it? The clinic in a bag won the case competition. Not only was it the most tangible solution to a real problem, but it was the most serious. Sometimes, when there’s a job to be done, trying to find that element of fun can get in the way of real, boots on the ground work.