Eric Johnson

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Why the University of Washington Wants Its Surgeons to Play Videogames

Randall Munroe /

In 1999, an Institute of Medicine study found that as many as 98,000 people die every year as the result of medical error in the U.S., incurring some $17 billion to $29 billion in hospital expenses. In 2009, the Safe Patient Project concluded that the situation may have gotten even worse in the decade that followed.

That’s a tragedy, which Dr. Andy Wright — a surgeon and one of the core faculty members at the Institute for Simulation and Interprofessional Studies (ISIS), a health-care education program based at the University of Washington — thinks can be helped by playing videogames.

Wright isn’t advocating for surgeons’ entertainment, although he personally identifies as a gamer.

“Being a videogamer doesn’t get a lot of respect in a lot of mainstream professions,” he said at the gaming conference PAX last month. “But, it has been instrumental to me in becoming a surgeon.”

Wright’s specialty is laparoscopy, meaning that his surgeries require very small incisions, some less than a centimeter long, which may be more easily monitored from a TV screen than by looking directly at the surgical site. His panel at PAX, “Videogames in Medicine,” argued that the skills developed by games, such as hand-eye coordination and deliberate practice and teamwork, are also conducive to success in the operating room.

“Running a World of Warcraft guild doing raids is not terribly bad preparation for working in a hospital,” Wright said in the panel discussion, noting that between two-thirds and three-quarters of those medical-error deaths were the result of miscommunication. As an example of what not to do, he played this infamous clip of the World of Warcraft guild Pals For Life, seemingly falling apart:

On a more down-to-earth level, Wright discussed how virtual training “games” like the Surgical Science product LapSim can help surgeon trainees. Although every patient is different, simulating surgeries allows students the chance to fail and get feedback without endangering anyone’s life. Plus, simulators can easily throw those students into experiences that they might only see once in their entire careers, in order to prepare them for unlikely circumstances.

There’s some data to back this up. In a study conducted in 2002, surgical residents trained in a virtual-reality simulation of gallbladder dissection were six times less likely to make an error in the real world than a control group that only received standard training.

However, a review of academic literature on virtual-reality training published in 2010 raised two caveats: VR makes the biggest difference with simpler skills being learned by less-practiced surgeons, and manual surgical technique is just one of the competencies that it takes to become a good surgeon, with good clinical outcomes strongly influenced by interpersonal communication skills and good judgment.

So, can normal videogames — the ones not intended for medical training — help with those non-manual skills?

“Absolutely,” Wright told AllThingsD via email. “This is an area where I haven’t seen any research on the application of videogames in that context, but the skills are the same,” he said. “We teach judgment, team management, communication skills, conflict resolution, and error disclosure in the sim lab. You could easily see training those in a virtual environment or through gaming.”

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