How technology will help with healthcare issues

How technology  will help with healthcare issues

I am a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University. My background in biomedical research and computer technology has seen me become part of a team of collaborators which involves the School of Computing, Telecommunications and Networks at Birmingham City University, University of Birmingham's School of Immunity and Infection and Birmingham Children's Hospital. Our group are researching how technology can be used to help with issues relating to healthcare.

"Recently our interest has focussed on how serious games could be used to support young people who are living with conditions which can affect their long term health."

With advances in modern healthcare our average life expectancy is increasing so many of us can expect to live longer and healthy lives. However it also means that there is an increased chance that we will encounter a condition that affects our health and may persist with us over time. This can include conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and musculoskeletal diseases all of which can have a significant impact on people's long term health.

Many of us tend to accept that this might happen and be a natural consequence of growing older. However it is overlooked that these conditions can also affect children and young people too. It is thought that the incidence of long term conditions in the population are likely to increase. This will place an increased burden on healthcare services. Therefore alternative ways of providing assistance and support are needed and technology can play an important role in this.

"Research conducted by our group over the last 15 years has identified the importance of the Internet as source of this information"

Education forms an important part of the healthcare process as it provided patients and family with information about the condition, what is likely to happen to them, the treatments used and the best ways of managing their own care. Research conducted by our group over the last 15 years has identified the importance of the Internet as source of this information and when it was presented in forms that were rich in media content and interactivity, these contributed to the user's satisfaction and continued use of the resources. The revival of interest in how computer games can be used to provide education, known as serious games, provides a natural progression to the interactive health education websites and multimedia programs developed by us. Recently our interest has focussed on how serious games could be used to support young people who are living with conditions which can affect their long term health.

As a young person grows older they are likely to face a range of issues relating to the changing needs of their healthcare which can be further complicated when they enter adolescence. During this time habits like taking up smoking, drinking alcohol or experimenting with drugs can have negative impacts on an individual's health and can be of particular concern if the person is already living with a condition that affects their long term health. This is also a time where the young person will need to start to consider moving their healthcare from an environment that is family focussed to the adult setting. This can be a daunting prospect for both the young person and their family. If it is not managed carefully the young person may disengage with their healthcare.

"Computer games are often associated with negative aspects in young people's lives but they do form a very important part of their leisure and recreational time."

My colleague Janet McDonagh who is a consultant specialising in paediatric and adolescent rheumatology is a firm believer that the healthcare needs of young people are very different to those of children and adults and should be focussed on their specific needs. Janet is actively involved in promoting the concept of transitional care which is designed to address the medical, psychosocial, educational and vocational needs of young people in an age and developmentally appropriate way. Transition is intended to improve the chances of successful transfer with a view to maintaining the continuity of healthcare of the young person. However keeping young people engaged in this process can be challenging. Together we have been investigating how computer games might be used to help with this.

Computer games are often associated with negative aspects in young people's lives but they do form a very important part of their leisure and recreational time. Therefore rather than deterring them from playing computer games we should look at how we could use them to get them involved in important issues including looking after their own health.

Some of our previous research identified a range of computer games that have been developed over the years to help young people understand issues like childhood cancer, diabetes, asthma and to prevent people taking up smoking. Research into the effectiveness of these games have shown improvements in young people's knowledge, their confidence in being able to look after themselves, better communication with their doctors and maintaining their treatments. The results of using computer games were promising but they often focused on one condition and could not necessarily be applied to all the issues relating to transitional care.

"Being able to collaborate across disciplines and share ideas into new ways of doing things and how to tackle complex problems is always exciting and a great experience to be involved with."

Monitoring the young person's progress toward acquiring the knowledge and skills associated with transition is challenging especially outside of the clinical setting. The adolescent rheumatology team at Birmingham Children's Hospital have devised a series of checklists that the young people complete to indicate if they feel confident in specific skills and knowledge. In order to make this process more fun and provide objective measure of achievement. We have therefore been exploring how gamifying the process might get young people more involved in learning important skills that they will need in order to care for themselves especially as the emphasis and responsibility shifts away from their parents and family to them. This work has recently been published in the Journal Serious Games "A Gamification Model to Encourage Positive Healthcare Behaviours in Young People with Long Term Conditions".

Being able to collaborate across disciplines and share ideas into new ways of doing things and how to tackle complex problems is always exciting and a great experience to be involved with. The fact that the research work we are involved in is directly related to the benefit of patients and healthcare processes makes it very rewarding. It's also great to be able to work with respected colleagues and friends which always makes the work more enjoyable too.

The work of the three institutes is on-going and they are always happy to talk to people who are interested in their research.

Andrew Wilson is Senior lecturer at the School of Computing, Telecommunications and Networks at Birmingham City University.

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