Friday, September 26, 2014

Could Healthcare use a SimHospital?

It's July, 2014. Meaningful Use Stage 2 is underway, ICD-10 has been delayed again, the Affordable Care Act is happening, and healthcare is reforming at a pace it's never been subjected to. Change is afoot. So this has been keeping me quite busy.

So I thought I'd write a bit about the potential value of gaming and simulation in healthcare reform.

As a CMIO in a community hospital, you sometimes fill a lot of roles - Physician informaticist, project manager, trainer, workflow analyst, policy writer, regulatory guru, strategist, and practicing physician all in one. I think this is one of the reasons the CMIO role continues to expand and evolve nationally - It's helpful to have someone who sees so many facets of your care delivery system.

And as an Informaticist, to help the REAL world, you end up spending a lot of time in a VIRTUAL world, with dummy patients, dummy lab tests, and dummy tools, trying to test things in a virtual TEST environment, to make them work properly before they go into the LIVE environment. Sometimes I'm very surprised at what this virtual world teaches us about the real world. (For some Hollywood context, see Gary Sinise playing astronaut Ken Mattingly in the movie Apollo 13, where they work out problems in the virtual training environment that help save the real-life astronauts.)

Anyway, with all of the change going on in healthcare, we need to identify and train future healthcare leaders who will help see healthcare through these changes. Here is where gaming comes in.

Gaming could help healthcare, by allowing our future healthcare leaders to learn strategy in a safe, dummy, TESTING environment - No real workers, no real patients, no real budgets. If pilots can practice flying and landing planes in a simulator, why can't healthcare leaders? What if they could really experiment with revolutionary efficiency and cost-cutting strategies in a safe, TEST environment, where they wouldn't have to worry about departments or hospitals shutting down?

One thing I've learned from studying workflows is that most people behave in fairly predictable ways. Most people want to do the right thing - They want to practice their trade, make a living doing it, and be proud of their work - so if you give them enough structure and reinforcements, they will do it fairly predictably. In other words, predictable things happen predictably.

So if you were designing a healthcare simulator, it probably wouldn't be too hard to develop some common clinical and administrative avatars :
  1. [ CLINICAL ] Nurse avatars
  2. [ CLINICAL ] Physician avatars
  3. [ CLINICAL ] Pharmacist avatars
  4. [ CLINICAL ] Ancillary staff avatars (e.g. Respiratory, Dietary, Rehab, Case Management, etc.)
  5. [ ADMIN ] Manager-type avatars (e.g. Nursing, Providers, etc.)
  6. [ ADMIN ] Director/Chief avatars
  7. [ ADMIN ] Executive avatars
  8. [ ADMIN ] Board Member avatar
And in this game, with simulated budgets, each of these avatars would generally conduct themselves with a predictable degree of certainty, based on what I think are a few key environmental variables, which are all related to each other
  1. Amount of Education/Training (includes everything from formal, professional education to organizational orientation to continuing ed)
  2. Strength of Operational Infrastructure (includes everything from policies to governance to committee structure to supervision to technology to organized change management)
  3. Quality of Documentation (includes everything from contracts to job descriptions to committee charters to bylaws)
  4. Efficiency and Flexibility in Finance/Budgeting (includes everything from salaries to budgets to facilities and equipment)
  5. Effectiveness of Communication (includes everything from emails to committee meetings to reporting structure to internal/external posters and publicity)
So in a virtual, gaming scenario, you could potentially build a virtual SimHospital, from the ground up, full of these avatars. And if you wanted it to be successful - Or really successful -  you would probably want your virtual avatars to have the highest amount of education, strongest operational infrastructure, highest quality documentation, most efficient and flexible finance/budgeting, and most effective communication.

But the real world doesn't work like that - you can't have the highest degree of all of them. You have to make compromises. Usually limitations come in the form of time, resources, or both. So to be successful, most organizations constantly work to maximize all five of those factors.

But the virtual avatars in this virtual hospital would all be continuously responding to these environmental variables, and in this way, one could build this SimHospital - A virtual environment in which the goal is to make a working, functional, and financially viable hospital. You make the decisions, you juggle the variables, and the avatars and budgets will respond to your decisions. You could be your own virtual board member.

Why would someone want to play this game? To learn safely. To experiment. To try new ideas without people getting hurt. Heck, you could even make it fun and award points for things like delivering a quality procedure without complications, or saving money. What if healthcare administrators played this game at home, competitively, trying to see who could get the highest score?

Let's face it, running a healthcare corporation isn't easy, with these many complex internal and external environmental variables that are constantly changing. But helping leaders to understand the these changing variables in a safe, TEST environment, would have enormous educational value to future healthcare leaders.

After all, if pilots have virtual simulators for flying a plane, why not a virtual simulator for running a healthcare organization?

The challenge with this whole gaming idea, of course, would be deciding : What would you award points for, exactly? Would it be :
  1. Financial Profitability?
  2. Quality of Care?
  3. Quantity of Care?
  4. All of the above?
Whatever the scoring schema is, a place for healthcare leaders to learn managerial and leadership skills safely, and try out new ideas without risk, would be a tremendous help in training the leadership we will need to see our industry through the next ten years.

What would you award points for? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! Remember, this post is for educational purposes only, and to stimulate discussion about new and innovative ways to help improve the delivery of healthcare.