Learning to diagnose, treat rare surgical complications is as simple as downloading an app

Though the majority of digital innovations in healthcare center on optimizing patient behavior and outcomes, physicians can reap their fair share of benefits from tech, too.

One major example is the use of virtual training programs. Chicago-based startup Level Ex, for example, has developed a slate of hyper-realistic video games that allow healthcare providers to master especially tricky surgical procedures without having to travel to a simulation center or practice on an actual patient — all while earning actual Continuing Medical Education credits.

"Level Ex was founded by accident," according to the company's founder and CEO Sam Glassenberg, who considers himself something of a "black sheep" after pursuing a career in the video game industry rather than following the rest of his family into medicine.

In 2012, Mr. Glassenberg's anesthesiologist father asked his son to make an iPad game to help train his colleagues in fiberoptic laryngoscopy. Mr. Glassenberg uploaded the program to the App Store, then forgot about it until two years later, when he discovered it had been downloaded by more than 100,000 healthcare professionals. "I had, by accident, created what I think was one of the most popular training tools ever," he said.

Now, several years after that happy accident, Level Ex has expanded into cardiology, gastroenterology and pulmonology, with nearly 400,000 medical professionals using the games to earn CME credits.

Here, Mr. Glassenberg discusses how the seemingly disparate fields of gaming and medicine overlap.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: How is Level Ex changing healthcare?

Sam Glassenberg: We're fixing a lot. The visual quality and the realism we're able to achieve here is better than what you'll find in a $500,000 sim center. But instead of only being available to trainees with a sim center nearby, we're available to everyone in the world with a smartphone.

We have CME-accredited content; you can earn CME from playing a video game. We've given out thousands of CME credits. We capture the most rare and challenging diagnostic and surgical procedures as a video game. These cases are submitted by doctors, and they can compete against coworkers to see who gets the highest score. Overall, it's a much better way to experience and learn about cases because they're actually doing it instead of watching somebody doing it, reading about somebody doing it, hearing about somebody doing it. Doctors can prepare for the most rare or difficult cases without practicing on a live patient.

Q: What are the benefits of merging entertaining video games with something as serious as surgery?

SG: There are two key fronts. One is technology: The video game industry is 10 to 20 years ahead of state-of-the-art medical training — it's shocking. We in the games industry are constantly discovering how doctors learn and train, especially in difficult cases, and are constantly shocked by how behind they are.

The other is neuroscience: We in the games industry know how to engage players for hundreds of hours and change behavior at scale. We really understand how to train the brain and achieve that balance of success and frustration and achieve flow state. We're applying these techniques to technology that doctors can access on their own and play over and over again to improve their skills.

So, it changes everything: the way you earn CME, the way you learn about the newest products, the way you enhance your skills, the way medical societies disseminate new practices and policies.

Q: What's next for Level Ex?

SG: We're continuing to grow our audience and grow into new specialties. The demand has been shocking: Even before we launched in cardiology, cardiologists were playing our games. There's crazy demand from physicians across specialties to deploy in their specialty. For the specialties we're already in, we're expanding to new treatment areas and to new disease categories, and we're also increasing our partnerships across the industry and with medical associations.

More articles about health IT:
The components of an elite health IT team from UC Health CIO Tom Andriola
Pew to ONC: New EHR criteria should focus on pediatric patients' safety
Cerner kicks off app challenge for enhanced consumer EHR access

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