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Facing uncertainty by escaping: How digital games can solve medical problems

  • Education

Health professionals face constant uncertainty. Yes, science is about evidence, but anyone working with patients, human bodies and colleagues will face constant ambiguity.

When the stakes are life and death, how can health science students cope with this? 

Enter Jenny Moffett. An educationalist in RCSI’s Health Professions Education Centre (HPEC), she works with academic colleagues to develop their teaching skills and professional practice.  

Moffett, who is currently studying for a PhD, specialises in researching uncertainty.  

In 2023, she was awarded research funding to explore how health professionals could best manage the ambiguity that they face in their day-to-day roles.  

Through RCSI’s Student Engagement and Partnership (StEP) programme, which supports students and staff to work together on research projects, Moffett and her team set about developing a digital escape room, designed to be played by small groups of learners in an online environment.  

Now, their work has been published in The Clinical Teacher journal, where it picked up the 2024 Impact Award as the journal’s most downloaded paper last year.  

Since 2019, Moffett has been reading literature on digital escape rooms and the contribution that they can make to teaching and learning.  

She is a proponent of a concept called design thinking, a foundational set of processes, practices and attitudes that can be used for creating digital escape rooms, and which encourages teams to think like designers and allows them to work collaboratively on problems or challenges to creatively find practical solutions.  

Uncertainty in practice

While many of us may think of digital escape rooms as existing in a virtual reality world, and possessing a cinematic quality, the escape room devised by Moffett and her team was deliberately simple.  

Using software called Genially, which allows people to create interactive, animated content, the team built an escape room with visuals and audio, where clicking on one clue brings users to another page, and more clues.  

In this game, students or users are given a brief, before working in teams to solve a puzzle within 30 minutes. The puzzles are all designed to mimic the uncertainty that health professionals will, inevitably, encounter in their clinical practice.  

The game is designed for students who will feel a range of emotions, and face a range of personal and professional challenges, on their first clinical placement. When the game ends, students can discuss and share their feelings around uncertainty. 

Moffett has attended multiple collaborative seminars with colleagues from across the world, and also went in person to the European Congress of Game Based Learning, where educators come together to share their experience and expertise of online and physical escape rooms.  

There, she met other educators using escape rooms as learning tools for people of all ages, and in all types of situations including, for instance, younger children in classroom settings and people in elder care who may have dementia.  

What the games all have in common, however, is that they tend to focus on cognitive and emotional, rather than physical, skills.  

With the research completed, the award-winning paper, Building Digital Escape Rooms for Learning: From Theory to Practice, which has RCSI student Romket Pornsakulpaisal as lead author, provides a toolbox to health professions educators who would also like to build a digital educational escape room, as well as advice on how to use a structured process in its creation.

They may just simulate a scenario that medics will encounter – and, by doing so, ultimately save lives. 

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.