Computer games? Just what the doc ordered

SINGAPORE - Health-care institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes are tapping the fun but challenging element in computer games as part of treatment.

A day rehabilitation centre in Ang Mo Kio, for example, has found that the chance to play computer games has better motivated its patients to undergo therapy.

"With some of these virtual games, the elderly now look forward to therapy. It has fascinated them," said Mr Sairam Azad, centre manager of the AWWA Readycare Centre which uses iPads, Wii console games and laptop-based games to improve balance.

Some health-care facilities are also working with schools and companies to build games from scratch. Others are putting money into studies that examine how well gaming works compared with conventional methods.

The health-care institutions tap games mainly for rehabilitation - for example, to help stroke patients strengthen their limbs and regain their sense of balance.

The move towards gaming is due largely to the rise of consoles in the past five years that use motion-sensing technology. This allows games to be played using body movements, rather than with the click of a button.

Examples include Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Kinect. Tablets like iPads also offer games that brush up on areas such as memory.

At Tan Tock Seng Hospital, more than 100 sessions of games are run every week as part of treatment. Patients, mainly stroke sufferers, participate under supervision on top of regular therapy, said Dr Tjan Soon Yin, its deputy head of rehabilitation medicine.

The hospital now gets a constant stream of offers from people like researchers to build games for patients, he said.

Over at Villa Francis Home for the Aged, a group of about 30 residents gathers for Wii games at least four times a month.

Failing vision and being confined to wheelchairs do not deter them from giving shooting and obstacle games a shot.

Said the nursing home's head physiotherapist Janaki Priya: "Even if they cannot move their arms very well, at least their minds are working.

"You play, you score, you win. This immediate outcome gives them a real sense of pride."

Senior occupational therapist Yetta Chan of Singapore General Hospital (SGH) said a big plus point is that the virtual environment in gaming can be controlled.

"To train the patient to cross the road safely, I can take him out to the road but I cannot control the traffic," she said. "In a game, I can set the road conditions. The level of difficulty can also be increased as the patient improves."

SGH has worked on several studies and projects on gaming, including developing a supermarket game for stroke patients to practise reaching for objects.

Such tailor-made games are helpful given that off-the-shelf games are usually too difficult for physically impaired patients to manage, said Ms Chan.

The Institute of Mental Health is also examining whether gaming can be used to treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

And KK Women's and Children's Hospital is trying out games as a form of exercise for children with gait and balance problems.

The AWWA centre is creating software with Singapore Polytechnic and the Agency for Integrated Care to train a person's memory and improve his attention span.

Based on a kitchen and garden, the game helps players practise daily activities that they do at home, such as preparing a meal.

While gaming has taken hold in health-care institutions, Dr Tjan notes it is not yet a proven method and more research is needed before it can become routine.

But Madam Lim Soong Hiang, 59, is already sold on the idea.

She started playing iPad games for 15 minutes daily last month, besides her usual therapy, at AWWA. These include popular games such as Fruit Ninja, where players slice fruit that comes flying onto the screen.

"They train your mind, eyes and hands to be very quick," said the retiree. who had trouble moving her limbs for the past year because of a nerve problem.

chpoon@sph.com.sg


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