Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How the iPhone is going to save the world. Seriously!

An artist with an interest in healthcare recently asked me for my thoughts about the future direction of art (broadly defined) in children's healthcare. It's not an area to which I had given much thought but it caused me to consider the benefits, if any, of art and media in healthcare. Simply put, how best to use that which is the favorite activity of children, playing, to assist them in the treatment of their illness.
Just published in JAMA yesterday is a commentary which outlines some of the potential uses and benefits of video games. Before anyone rubbishes the concept, there are good precedents here. My younger patients undergoing a lung function test in which they must breathe into a machine as fast as possible are encouraged to do so by a screen with a birthday cake and candles; the harder they blow, the more candles are extinguished.
The paper in JAMA describes various tools. Mindless Eating Challenge, a weight loss program, is a game where users support one another by sharing photographs of portion sizes. Lit to Quit allows iPhone users to puff into the phone to simulate the experience of smoking.
While the skeptics may rightly laugh off these efforts, bear in mind these are very early days. Analogous to measuring urine glucose in diabetics in the 1920's. This took 5 minutes using some very sophisticated reagents. Underestimate the power of technology at your peril.
While I am not an expert in this area, it seems to me that the real focus of opportunity lies in the nexus of massive multiplayer on line games (MMOG) and social networking. Christakis has published a number of very significant papers showing the effects of social networks on depression, happiness, weight gain and smoking. Imagine a game, aimed at children with diabetes, where children can interact and earn from one another, in which the game incentivizes the appropriate behaviors, such as diet, exercise, compliance with screening and so on. Crazy? Yes, without a doubt. Crazier than our current system where we believe that seeing a child a few times a year in a busy environment with numerous distractions is going to deliver the best outcomes? You decide.

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