Games help healthcare professionals

June 15, 2006, volume 36, no. 4
By Sandra McKenzie

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Ask PhD candidate Daniel Ha to describe his particular area of interest, and he's momentarily stymied. “SIAT students always have trouble explaining what they do,” he says with a laugh. “It'd be different if I were in a faculty like geography, where things are pretty specific.” In fact, it's precisely the amorphous, interdisciplinary nature of SFU Surrey's school of interactive arts and design (SIAT) that attracted Ha in the first place. “I have many different interests, but if I had to choose just one area of research, it would be interactive story simulations for learning,” he says.

In short, Ha and his fellow researchers are interested in games, specifically, games for healthcare professionals that present realistic interactive scenarios. The result, HealthSimNet, looks a lot like any other variation on a theme of The Sims. The big difference is that instead of toying with imaginary characters in a fantasy community, HealthSimNet deals with the all-too-real dramas of HIV/AIDS.

Imagine, for example, that you're a public health nurse. You have to inform a teenaged girl that she has been exposed to HIV/AIDS, and that it is in her best interest to be tested. Dealing with such sensitive situations has not been part of your professional training. What do you do?

HealthSimNet allows you to role-play the scenario, consulting with other concerned participants, such as doctors, pharmacists, or family members, all within the safety of a virtual world. “Medical students and other healthcare professionals are generally taught how to treat a standardized patient, within a narrow scope of specialization,” Ha explains. “We're trying to tell a larger story, bringing in different perspectives and elements for a more holistic approach to health care.” The game environment allows stakeholders to explore options, interact with other caregivers, and experiment with a variety of approaches to a problem. While the roles are scripted, the stories unfold in different ways, depending on who the user chooses to interact with.  

Still under development, HealthSimNet is a collaborative project involving the UBC College of Health Disciplines, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and other local AIDS organization, under the leadership of Dr. Mike Dobson, and Dr. David Kaufman's Simulations and Gaming Environments (SAGE) for Learning. Ha was initially intrigued when Dr. Dobson posted an advertisement for a research assistant to work with the HealthSimNet team. Already possessed of a strong interest in the relationship between games and learning, he thought, “That's the project for me.”   

The simulation will go to the next stage in June, when a group of health science students, including medical students, dieticians, nurses, pharmaceutical science students, and social workers put it to the test at St. Paul's Hospital. Ha hopes that this project will lead to new tools and methods for interdisciplinary learning among healthcare professionals.

 “I like the idea of being part of something new, something that is still in the making,” Ha says. “I'm thankful for the opportunity to pursue meaningful work and I especially appreciate the fact that I'm able to broaden my own horizons in the process.” 

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