From The Editor | August 18, 2010

Can Video Games Play A Serious Role In Medicine?

Last week, a survey of University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin-Madison medical students was published by BMC Medical Education. According to the survey, an overwhelming majority of these students (80%) liked the idea of using video games as a tool to teach them medical techniques and practices. Few should really be surprised by these results. I mean, what college student wouldn't rather play a video game than read a dry, lengthy textbook to gain medical know-how? However, the authors of the study believe a generational shift in attitude towards video games and technology in general is the reason for the survey outcome.

"Due in large part to their high degree of technical literacy, today's medical students are a radically different audience than the students of 15 to 20 years ago," says Frederick W. Kron, M.D., former medical educator and president of Medical Cyberworlds, Inc. "They are actually more comfortable in image-rich environments than with text." While I agree with Dr. Kron's sentiments, I would argue that advancements in video game technology over the past 15 to 20 years have also had a lot to do with the growing legitimacy of the platform as a teaching aid and simulator. You likely could have asked a group of college kids in the '80's or '90's if they would like to learn medical techniques from their Atari 2600s or Super Nintendos and received results similar to those generated by last week's study. However, the concept alone would have been ludicrous at the time. Video game technology just wasn't sophisticated enough to provide accurate simulations. Today's video game technology, on the other hand, is more than capable of replicating true-to-life environments. In fact, video game-like platforms are already leveraged as training and research tools in a variety of other industries. For example, NASA uses the technology to simulate aerospace travel, engineering and manufacturing firms use it for process optimization and modeling, police departments and the FBI use it for field and range training, and the United States military leverages video games for combat simulation. Therefore, it's highly conceivable that today's video games can offer the same value to the medical field.

The Medical Limitations Of Video Games
While video games may be a viable teaching aid in medicine, they will definitely have some limitations. Most proponents of use of the technology in healthcare feel that video game applications will be most useful at teaching students key medical concepts and surgical procedures or as a diagnostic support tool. These advocates also feel the technology will help students make important career choices by allowing them to step into the shoes of practitioners in different specialties. While this may be true, a video game will not be able to simulate the feeling of cutting into flesh, muscle, or bone or the emotions that come with having someone's life in your hands. The technology may also be limited when it comes to teaching students how to overcome day-to-day obstacles, such as dealing with difficult patients.

Video Games For Patient Recovery
While video games are no replacement for real-world experience, I believe they can have merit in the classroom setting as a teaching aid for select curriculum. But, why stop there? The BMC Medical Education study actually got me thinking about ways video game technology could actually be useful in a provider setting as a means to treat patients. For example, I recently suffered an injury that required me to undergo physical therapy. After my initial visit with the therapist, I was given a file folder filled with paper printouts of a series of exercises I was to complete at home each day to accelerate my recovery. Referring to these sheets of paper to perform an exercise was very inconvenient. I had to spread the documents out on the floor or a table and I was never really certain that I was completing the exercise correctly. What if physical therapists gave patients the option of completing these "at home" exercises using an interactive video game that was compatible with Nintendo's Wii Fit? The video game display could guide patients through the exercise and the console could even let patients know when they were completing the exercise correctly or incorrectly. Isn't it conceivable that this video game option would improve the likelihood that patients would stick to their at home physical therapy regimens, improving overall outcomes? Isn't it also conceivable that more advanced physical therapy techniques could be completed via a video game as well, reducing the number of office visits a patient had to make? At the very least, physical therapy video game programs would improve patient satisfaction.

Doctors have already been documented as using existing games for the Wii console (e.g. bowling, golf, tennis, and other sports games) in the physical rehabilitation of patients (see this 2008 article from USA Today). The repetitive motion and use of the system's motion-sensitive controller have assisted in patient recovery, while making the rehab experience fun. Why not take this concept a step further and create video games specifically designed for patient recovery? There may not be a retail market for it, but it could be a differentiator that could contribute to patient loyalty. Just a thought.

Ken Congdon is Editor In Chief of Health IT Outcomes. He can be reached at