Serious gaming can transform medical education

  • Posted on 24.11.2016

Serious gaming can transform medical education


Marlies Schijven

Professor of Surgery & Chair on Simulation, Serious Gaming and Applied Mobile Healthcare, University of Amsterdam


Gaming and simulations can engage surgeons in ways that traditional medical education does not, says Professor Marlies Schijven who has shown the power of play in improving surgical skills. As a surgeon, game developer and app inventor – among other things – she is also on the cutting edge of using wearable technologies in the operating room and was the first person to live-stream abdominal surgery on YouTube via Google Glass.

What is serious gaming?

Serious gaming uses the principles of playful technology and the power of play to get an educational message across without people feeling as though they are being taught. The key is to wrap educational content into the game, in such a way that it is not perceived as ‘homework’.

How can gaming and simulations help surgeons?

This approach can be used to train anyone – but it has great potential in teaching surgical skills. It is very important to have game designers involved in developing the games otherwise it will just become another boring e-learning module or tedious task. I have shown that, compared to traditional training methods, well-designed simulations and games actually make for better, more competent surgeons.

How did you become interested in working with game designers?

For me, it was natural. Before I studied medicine, I studied for some time in a design academy so I can pretty much understand the way designers think and I value their approach. Good serious games are developed by good designers in collaboration with content experts.

You have also been experimenting with wearable devices in the operating theatre. What do these technologies do for surgeons?

To give one example, you often need to control computers or other devices whilst performing surgery. If this means typing on a keyboard or touching a mouse, you would have to take off your gloves. In a sterile environment, this is far from ideal. One of the technologies I am using is a wireless mouse that you wear under a sterile glove. This allows me to control devices without touching them.

Do you expect to see more technologies in the operating rooms of the future?

Yes, I think the surgeon of the future will be much more augmented by technologies than is the case now. But it has to be the right fit: just adding more technology into the operating room for the sake of it is not helpful. We need tailor-made solutions that solve real problems rather than being a burden on the surgeon’s brain hardware.

What are the barriers to the adoption of more technology in surgery?

Surgeons are very open to new technologies but industry has to work with people in hospitals to see and understand what their needs truly are. It always starts with the ‘why?’ In consumer technologies, offering new technologies can generate demand but in healthcare it’s different. You don’t build a new device just because you can; you have to solve a real problem.

You performed the first live abdominal surgery on YouTube using Google Glass. What inspired you to do this?

One reason was to test whether the hospital’s WiFi was stable enough to broadcast a video stream to YouTube directly. For me, it was important to try out if I could provide a direct insight in what I was doing in the operating room to my colleague at home so he or she could help me if needed.  As not every colleague of mine is familiar with using Google HangOuts or some of the other video streaming platforms that are available, I chose YouTube. Everyone knows YouTube.

We learned a lot from it, about latency times, dispersion angles of video but also from the patient’s perspective. I’ll never forget the patient’s partner comment when I called her a bit late at the end of the operation – to say all went well – and made an excuse for that: ‘Don’t worry about it doc, I don’t. I’ve seen you have finished and it all went well, right?’ That’s when the reality sunk in again – we did something really special.

This blog is part of the MedTech Forum blog series. Marlies Schijven was a speaker at the MedTech Forum 2016. You can follow the conversation under #MTF2016 and find more details and at

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