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The Gamification of Medicine: How Video Games Are Sharpening Surgical Skills

Just don't go thinking that playing FIFA all day will boost your MCAT score.
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Move over, Dr. Mario? Turns out budding surgeons are playing games to develop a steady hand. To wit: A group of post-graduate medical students in Rome who participated in a recent month-long program using the Nintendo Wii went on to earn higher scores in surgical simulators relating to laparoscopic, or keyhole, surgery compared to students who did not use the Wii.

The researchers, who ran the simulations at the University of Rome, just published their findings in PLOS One, and said that using the Wii could become a "helpful, inexpensive and entertaining part of the training of young laparoscopists" to supplement a standard, hands-on surgical education with simulators in operating rooms.


Here's how it worked: Researchers had the students play the Wii everyday for an hour, five times a week, for a total of four weeks. The trials included playing tennis and "battle" games, the idea being to improve hand-eye coordination. Simple, right? Hell, I could do that.

But it goes beyond Wii Fitness and busting n00bs in the ring--games and apps are cropping up that cater exclusively to in-training medical professionals.

Take Touch Surgery, an iPhone app. The Guardian described it as a training exercise that could help improve surgeons' decision making and technical skills. The "mobile surgical simulator" allows users to learn the steps of 12 different operations with intense 3D animation, from cleft palate repair to emergency leg fasciotomies.

Touch Surgery's suite of games--if you'd like to call them that--is designed to compartamentalize each operation into a series of steps and check points, similar to a "level-save" feature in a standard video game, while tracking users' progress and error-making through each decision point. Perhaps most critically, the simulations help users recognize risks--nerves and arteries to avoid, for example.

And it's not just about all tomorrow's surgeons sharpening their skills. In a promising twist, Touch Surgery is being used by patients as a way to familiarize themselves with whatever procedures or surgeries they're about to go through. As Touch Surgery developer Jean Nehme told the Guardian, "We've found that it really improves patient comprehension and reduces anxiety."


So even if Touch Surgery is arguably one of the most sobering "games" imagineable, it sure beats having a surgeon drone on about just how, exactly, he'll be inserting that scalpel into your leg. The app literally shows you, the patient, what's you're about to undergo, physically, in an accurate representation, thus tranquilizing fear of the unknown. At least that's the idea.

"Once upon a time, the surgeon was god," Nehme added. "But now it's more of a shared partnership."

But med students shouldn't go thinking that playing FIFA all day is going to boost that MCAT score. Dr. Gregori Patrizi, who co-authored the Wii study, said that it's difficult to make the case for academic institutions utilizing video-game consoles "as didactic tools for surgery." Rather, he hopes something like Touch Surgery "may be a trigger" to generate more dedicated software aimed at young surgeons looking to cut their teeth.

Don't go thinking this is all entirely new, either. The marriage of games and medicine, to use a blanket term, goes a ways back.

Look at seminal boardgame Operation, for one, which has tested players' fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination since it was introduced in 1965. More recenetly, there's the peer-reviewed journal Games For Health: Research, Development and Clinical Applications (G4H). Launched in 2011, G4H covers the benefits and pitfalls of game technology in the medical community. And as NPR's Shots blog points out, a handful of studies prior to the Wii trials hinted at the potential positive correlation between game play and laparoscopic adroitness, "but those [studies] were largely based on surveys of sugeons' prior video gaming habits."

Yet with more and more studies suggesting a link between surgical chops and, say, a crisp Wii-Tennis forehand, the scope-light could well be pointing toward a near-feature where doctors and patients alike "play" "games" for the sake of a smooth operation. I'll Super Jump Punch to that.