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Harnessing Video Games for Health

For some, video games can become an addiction. But across Europe, medical professionals are turning to video games as a tool for enhancing healthcare

When in 2007 the Portuguese government allowed undergraduates to study for two degrees simultaneously, Hernâni Zão Oliveira was already mid-way through a biology course at the University of Porto. But, as he puts it, “a passion for communication” made him take up a second degree in journalism. 

The dual track continued with his masters, in oncology, when it began to have an effect.

Medical professionals and patients had been frequently unable to communicate effectively. Patients, with little knowledge of the treatments they were undergoing, were often depressed, reducing their chances of recovery. 

“I saw the need to use communication tools to increase communication levels between health providers and cancer patients. I developed a first project using infographic tools to increase health literacy in breast cancer patients,” Dr Oliveira recalls. 

It was the first step in his own specialised journey, helping both health professionals and those in their care to come to a better – and ultimately more positive – understanding of the medical procedures they were jointly undertaking. In turn, this leads to more effective, more efficient treatment. 

Dr Oliveira’s infographic project soon came to the attention of the director of paediatrics at the Portuguese Institute of Oncology. 

“Children in hospital with cancer were scared. These high anxiety levels are damaging, leading to depression, and that, in turn, leads to low physical exercise. It was a vicious circle, and not one to aid recovery,” says Dr Oliveira. 

As if to ram the message home, one year after beginning his PhD, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. 

“Life is interesting!” – he quips. “I realised the crucial need to develop products to help patients understand and cope.” 

Dr Oliveira thought long and hard, and discussed the issue with colleagues. After beating his own cancer, he began developing what he eventually dubbed 'Hope', designed to reduce the physical and emotional burdens in children hospitalised with cancer. The key to achieving this was to use a video game to make the process interesting, fun and challenging.

“We devised a video game that tells a story of a child who fights cancer as a superhero would fight against the bad guys in any adventure story. This way, all the medical procedures were transformed into challenges for the kids to emulate,” he says.

This way, all the medical procedures were transformed into challenges for the kids to emulate

"Dr Oliveira had just the kind of ideas and expertise we were looking for, so we selected him for our pan-European Starship programme. It was no surprise when his team won the best pitch award, and €19,000 in tuition fee support,” says Jorge Figueira, head of the Technology Transfer Office at the University of Coimbra and a Supervisory Board member of EIT Health InnoStars.


It was no surprise when his team won the best pitch award, and €19,000 in tuition fee support

The Portuguese development is only one of several EIT Health-backed projects across Europe that have turned to video games as a key element in attracting and motivating patients to understand and optimise the management of their disease.

Further south, Restorative Neurotechnologies, based in Palermo, on the Italian island of Sicily, has developed a unique treatment of neurological disorders, such as impaired attention, language and memory, which typically afflict victims of strokes. 

Dubbed 'Mindlenses Professional', the process first enables the patient to stimulate brain activity in a process using prismatic eyeglasses, before working through a series of video gaming exercises designed by psychologists to restore the damaged faculties. 

The Restorative Neurotechnologies team, cooperating with Consorzio Arca, a local EIT Health Hub, was granted €40,000 and networking support through an EIT Health accelerator programme, and in August this year gained a €1 million capital injection from a consortium of three investors to finance development. In addition, together with partners they were granted €75,000 from the EIT Health RIS Innovation Call.

“We aim to complete clinical trials with Mindlenses and position ourselves as the market leader for innovative neurorehabilitation devices for a variety of conditions and diseases,” says Agnese Di Garbo, clinical manager and co-founder of Restorative Neurotechnologies.

Like Dr Oliveira, she believes carefully designed video games are a highly effective, cost-efficient way to aid treatment.  

“Interactive videos are an easy way to keep people engaged. They 'recruit' multiple cognitive functions, which is very useful to build up effective therapy. An integrated approach is far better than working on these functions in isolation," she says. 

Meanwhile in Portugal, Dr Oliveira, who has now started to work with the University of Évora, has evidence that his Hope therapy is not only likely to cut healthcare costs by reducing treatment times, but has enormous, intangible value in restoring children's self-confidence after chemotherapy. “Psychologists frequently comment that inpatient children become discouraged and depressed after going bald,” he says. In the Hope video game, after the superhero completes the first chemotherapy session, the player is invited to cut the character's hair. 

“This gives the superhero new superpowers symbolised by his bald head and new pyjamas,” he says. “As a result, many patients confide in their parents that, like the superhero, they too have superpowers to fight the disease.”

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