Game Solutions for Health Care: A Spectacularly Transformative Learning Experience

Jun 15, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by

Nancy Hanrahan, PhD, RN, CS, FAAN, is associate professor and faculty member of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the Penn School of Nursing. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar alumna. As a health systems researcher, she develops innovative models that promote an integrated mind/body approach to mental and physical health care.

At a time when there is an urgent need for innovative solutions to health care challenges, educators have a responsibility to prepare a generation of students who can think outside the box. The Inaugural Game Solutions for Healthcare Symposium at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing showcases such transformative learning experiences.

At this event, students from nursing and other schools within the University of Pennsylvania show what happens when you “mix-it-up” and work together to build innovative games and applications that target specific health care problems. More than 60 undergraduate students, staff and faculty participated in the game projects from five different schools at Penn. Teams included students from nursing, engineering, computer science, law, medicine and business. Nursing students defined a health care problem and then a team of engineers, or computer scientists, developed a technological solution.


The program generated a forum for faculty and students that spectacularly transformed the learning experience. Students learned new language and ways to think differently about problems and solutions. Students learned by doing and developed an unexpected range of possible solutions, created prototypes of games or applications that they will take back out into the field to test with real people.

In one instance, a group of nursing students developed a game for juvenile inmates in a detention center who were awaiting a hearing before Juvenile Court. The game they developed, called Body Wars, was highly interactive and built players’ skills at identifying a body part that was harmed by a substance or health problem such as HIV or a sexually transmitted disease. The nursing students shared the game with a juvenile court judge, who after viewing it, agreed to reduce sentences for juveniles who played and completed the game.

Another team of students worked to develop ways to communicate with youth ages 10 to 14 who attend a diabetes clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and were recently diagnosed with Type I diabetes. A nursing student, nurse practitioners from the clinic, and four engineering students developed a tool, MyDiaText, to help young patients comply with their diabetes treatment. The nurses provided insight on how best to improve treatment outcomes with an adolescent patient population and the engineering students developed a texting protocol that interfaced with clinical operations.

The tool they developed aids in the adoption of diabetes-specific healthy habits by providing SMS reminders and eliciting progress responses by incentivizing patients with a points-based reward system. The goals the patients will work toward are chosen from options approved by the American Diabetes Association program.

Working together, the students learned about ‘real world’ health problems, treatment of diabetes, and outpatient services. MyDiaText won first place in the Game Solutions for Healthcare Symposium held at the Penn School of Nursing on April 19th.

Through developing game solutions, students broke down artificial walls between disciplines and transformed the learning experience in spectacular ways for students and faculty.

Together with Barry Silverman, PhD, of the School of Engineering, we are advancing another phase of this project—building a prototype simulation to capture the “real world dynamics” of the behavioral health system of Philadelphia. The objective is to provide decision support for public health administrators who have few tools to manage the complexity of systems.

Systems science technology provides an opportunity to look at problems with multiple perspectives—studying micro and macro issues simultaneously—to understand how they are interdependent. Through games and simulations we hope to improve our understanding of the health care system and delivery of health care so that we may provide the best care possible. The work has already begun in Pennsylvania.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.