Hoping to make healthcare education hip, Cigna Healthcare is announcing today it has created a virtual environment in the Second Life virtual world to educate people on how to improve their health.

The Cigna Virtual Healthcare Community is an “island” in Linden Lab’s Second Life world where users can walk through 3-D interactive displays with their avatars, play educational games, listen to seminars on nutrition and health, and receive virtual health consultations.

Designed by Method, a San Francisco brand experience agency, the island is unique in that visitors to the healthcare insurance company’s own web site can sign up for Second Life at the Cigna site and then transport their avatars directly into the virtual island. Upon entering the virtual island, an avatar character greets the visitor and then leads them to a virtual seminar, where participants can communicate via chat or voice.

Like many insurance companies, Cigna, based in Bloomfield, Conn., offers healthcare advice to those it insures as an attempt to keep its long-term costs lower and its insurance rates more affordable. But traditional seminars and web sites aren’t terribly interesting. IBM has opened a Virtual Healthcare Island in Second Life as well. The island demos the Healthcare Information Exchange system where users can create their own electronic medical records. These islands have richer health information than other entertainment-oriented virtual health games, such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit game. Cigna’s effort is part of an overall movement, dubbed Games for Health, to use electronic media to stimulate interest in health.

Claus Nehmzow, general manager of Method, said his company aimed to integrate the virtual experience into Cigna’s existing web site so that it would attract new users to Second Life. For now, the site is open only to Cigna’s member companies and their employees. Over time, it will be opened up to general visitors on the site.

“This is a cost-effective way to reach people about programs that educate people about being overweight, smoking, or managing stress,” Nehmzow said. “The existing ways to do this aren’t as effective and they’re expensive.”

As avatars, users can attend seminars and vote in real time on what they like or don’t. The seminars can impart information such as how much fiber you need to eat in a day. Simple games, such as “Whack a Food,” can also pass along information on how to make the right food choices.

Method has been working on the project since last October. The company has 150 corporate clients for its branding services and has 75 employees. It is based in San Francisco. In 2007, Cigna promoted and distributed for free the video game “Re-Mission,” designed to teach kids how to manage their health better while undergoing cancer treatment.

By Dean Takahashi in VentureBeat.

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