University of Pittsburgh researchers co-develop video game to help physicians recognize signs of trauma

Doctor looking at X-ray
A new game co-developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh seeks to help doctors recognize the signs of trauma. (Getty/bernardbodo)

Physicians who don't regularly treat trauma patients may not be trained to recognize some of the signs, so researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a new educational method: video games. 

In a trial, researchers at the university had 149 doctors play the game "Night Shift," an adventure game in which doctors play as a young physician who treats patients with severe trauma. Another 148 doctors used written materials to study the signs of trauma, according to a study published in the BMJ.  

They assessed each group of doctors within a month after they played the game or studied and then again six months later. In a simulation after the training, the doctors who played the game "undertriaged," or failed to send patients with severe trauma to a hospital that can care for them, 53% of the time. Those who read the written materials did so 64% of the time. 

After six months, the doctors who played the game undertriaged patients 57% of the time, compared to 74% for those who read the printed materials. 

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"Night Shift" was co-developed by Deepika Mohan, M.D., an assistant professor in the departments of critical care medicine and surgery at Pitt's School of Medicine, and local educational game development company Schell Games. The game is designed to tap into "heuristics," which is the part of the brain that recognizes patterns and prior experiences and uses them to make quick choices, according to an announcement from the university.

"Physicians must make decisions quickly and with incomplete information," Mohan, the study's lead author, said. "An hour of playing the video game recalibrated physicians' brains to a degree that, six months later, they were still out-performing their peers in recognizing severe trauma." 

One drawback the researchers found is that the physicians in the study didn't particularly enjoy the video game as a training tool in comparison to a more traditional, text-based study method. But because the game showed positive results anyway, researchers believe it might pay off further if they can improve the experience for physicians.

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Pitt is not the first to look at video games as a possible training tool, particularly in trauma or emergency care. MedStar Health has also developed a game, called "Trauma:Yellow." The game uses virtual reality to train emergency physicians. 

"The objective was to help emergency physicians and trauma surgeons better manage the first 30 minutes or so of a trauma case in the emergency department," said Bill Sheehan, director of MedStar Health Institute's Simulation Training and Education Lab, which created the game. 

Though "Trauma:Yellow" is not quite ready for clinical use, its developers plan for it to serve as a tool for nonemergency physicians to hone their skills.