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Games (Some) People Play

By Kim Bellard, May 13, 2013

I have to admit that I am a child of the television age, with movies as a close second.  I never really got into video games, like PacMan, Tetris, Mario Brothers, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto or even Madden NFL, and am only now belatedly becoming addicted to Angry Birds.  As I suspect is true of many of us old health care pros, I am also late to the potential revolution that video games offer for health care.  I’m glad others in the field have been paying more attention.

The video game industry is not for teenagers, and its size is shocking – it dwarfs the music industry, and, depending on which source one uses, either has surpassed or soon will surpass the movie industry.  It’s helping to drive the chip, PC, and mobile phone industries; none can afford to fail to deliver the speed and video quality that modern gamers demand.  We’re talking about a soon-to-be $70 billion industry here; still only a fraction of the health care industry, but much bigger, for example, than spending on health IT

The video game industry itself faces its own challenges; for example, the era of game consoles may be ending, as more gaming is done on mobile devices and with other options for player control.  That’s not to say the era of video games is passing, but rather that it continues to change rapidly.  Hand-held games were revolutionary when first introduced, as were game consoles, PC-based games, the Wii controller, Kinect, to name a few.  Video game companies who do not innovate can find themselves quickly left behind.  This “evolve-or-die” mindset is one that I wish was more prevalent in health care, whose attitude is more often “we know best” and/or “not too fast!”

Always looking ahead, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation started its Games for Health project back in 2004.  They have given grants of over $9 million, and have an active conference and information sharing presence in the health/gaming intersection.  They’re not just spurring development of games and games technology, but also funding research on the games’ effectiveness through their Health Games Research program. 

The research is showing some results.  There are many reports about the health benefits of video games, such as a recent study that found video games can slow or even reverse mental decay, and a broader list of positive impacts that include motion skills, stress reduction, pain relief, vision and decision-making skills.  Apparently, both seniors and kids can benefit. 

An example of how game principles can be applied in health care is Mango Health, which turns the problem of medication management into a game, complete with rewards that can be turned into gift cards or charitable donations.  It is not the first or only such example, but is illustrative of the potential games offer.

The Entertainment Software Association, perhaps sensitive about criticism that violent videogames can have adverse impacts, prominently touts video games’ role in health care (along with family life, art, the economy, education, social issues, and the workplace – boy, these guys really are defensive, aren’t they?).  Two of the key areas it cites are in rehabilitation and in training.  For example, USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies researchers developed Jewel Mine to provide customized rehabilitation to people with a variety of neurological and physical injuries.  Other efforts use out-of-the-box gaming systems, like Wii or Xbox, to make rehab more enjoyable.  And there is an organization, Games4Rehab, that tries to tie users, developers, clinicians, and researchers together in this area.

One of the innovators in training that ESA cites is the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Advanced Simulation, Training, Research, and Innovation Center (MASTRI).  MASTRI has been working for over six years now on high tech simulation and training for health care.  Even ONC is using video games for training, as is Darpa (in their case, mobile medical training for first responders). 

One recent study found that surgeons who used the Wii – not on any specific medical games but just using standard Wii games -- outperformed their peers in laparoscopic simulators, due to improved spatial attention and hand-eye coordination.  My favorite study, though, was the one that found gamers did better at simulated surgery than medical residents.  Maybe the wrong people are doing those kinds of surgeries.

Surprisingly, payors haven’t all been late to this particular game.  Humana, in particular, was a pioneer, focusing on video games as far back as 2007.  Aetna  and United have joined the movement, and last year the Wall Street Journal summarized various insurer efforts.  One senses they’re not quite sure what they should be doing, but don’t want to get left behind.

People have coined the term “gamification” to include game-like features into non-game pursuits.  Author Jane McGonigal wrote a fascinating book called Reality Is Broken, the subtitle of which is “Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.”  She doesn’t confine herself to video games, nor does she talk much about their applications for health care, but the mind-set she describes -- which include overcoming obstacles, rewards, collaboration, interaction, voluntary participation, and feedback -- is very much something people in health care should be incorporating more. 

The health care system does often seem like a maze, but it’s not one that most people have any fun navigating, nor one where many people emerge thinking they are winners.  This is an industry where, for example, use of outdated communications technologies like pagers waste an estimated $8.3 billion annually.  This is an industry that demanded, and is getting, hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal government to bring their medical records into the 20th century (and I mean that), largely still in siloed, mainframe EHRs that can’t talk well with each other and whose requirements for “Meaningful Use” are being delayed again.  It is not, in short, an industry that would seem an early adaptor of the lessons video games can teach.

Video games are no panacea for health care.  Not everything is a game, not everything should be approached like a game, and not everyone likes games.  Still, there are a couple of important lessons we should draw from them:

  • To each his own: for a not insignificant and growing portion of the population, games are a familiar and preferred medium.  If we want to educate, motivate, and influence behavior for that segment, game-like approaches are the way to go.  The likelihood of reaching serious gamers through, say, a telephonic disease management program would seem to be very low.  The point is not to use video games for everything for everyone, but to use the right media for the right populations.  We now have lots of options to reach people, including not just games but also social media, text, email, mobile.  The challenge to providers, health systems, and health plans is to figure out how to best use each tool for which portion(s) of the population.   
  • Take advantage of the technology and design:  Video games are in an arms race for better experience, and, as with arms races, there can be spillover benefits to other sectors.  High quality simulated images (even 3-D), on-demand, motion-sensing, multimedia, multi-person, and, above all, relentlessly interactive – all describe modern game capabilities and should be describing applications for health care, even if not used for games themselves.  Maybe health care organizations should hire fewer mainframe programmers and more game designers to work on their B2C efforts. 

Excuse me, but I better go play some games…for my health, of course!

Reader Comments (1)

Another example of video game health benefits:

May 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKim

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