Game Brain: To Win at Healthcare, Think Like a Gamer

The game has changed, the rules are evolving and winning has been redefined. Adopt a gaming mindset to get to the next level.

Healthcare is not a game. The decisions and processes we influence can impact the health and well-being of real people who put their trust in our organizations to carry them through some of the biggest challenges of their lives. So, when I suggest, as I’m about to, that our practices could benefit from adopting elements of gaming strategy, please understand that I know our patients and colleagues are much more than pieces on a game board.

Think like a gamer

The last decade has seen big changes in how practices are run, with many of the changes driven by our evolving use of data. We’ve gone electronic with medical records and documentation, have a variety of analytical tools at our fingertips and, perhaps most important, have learned the value of partnering with our clinical leader counterparts to understand what the data mean and how to apply them in decision making.

These improvements have led to many accomplishments, but when I asked a group of practice administrators how we’re doing, they were quick to point out how far there is to go. We’re behind the curves that matter to us, they say. Healthcare data lag behind other industries and has not evolved at anywhere near the same rate as clinical advances. And now, when healthcare is on everyone’s minds and we’re being pressured to do much more with much less, it’s past time to change the game. To do that, we’ll need to think like gamers.

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1. The game never ends

Monopoly and Rook, awesome as they are, are yesterday’s games. It may have taken five hours to bankrupt your sibling or reach 500 points, but eventually you boxed up the pieces and the currency and put it all away. Most modern games don’t end. Gamers keep playing, reaching level after level, piling up points, supplies or strategic intel as they climb. Achieving each new level delivers a shot of adrenalin, a surge of accomplishment, preparing them to take on the next challenge. Let’s use healthcare data in that way, as more than monthly or annual data elements compiled on a spreadsheet. The game is population health and the levels we conquer, from quality-over-cost to postdischarge management, build on one another, taking us higher but never to the end of the game. It’s no longer about getting the patient out of the hospital. We are now managing the complex patient within a complicated system.

2. It comes down to strategy

Whether your game is old school, like chess, or one of today’s digital apps, thinking steps ahead of your opponent (even if the opponent is the game itself) is fundamental to winning. We need to continue making that shift, from reactive to proactive, with healthcare data. Let’s engineer a bigger, faster, deeper shift from depending on billing data and registries—which are, of course, invaluable tools for reacting in order to improve—to hardwiring real-time data collection and linking data in meaningful ways.

3. Adapt or die

Then there are the games, where winning or losing is less about strategy and more about the roll of the dice or the stack of the deck. Successful gamers are able and willing to adapt. When their avatars meet a fiery death, get lost in a maze or plunge into a crevasse, they go with it, rebounding faster and smarter for the experience. Healthcare data is much the same. Technology keeps changing (not always for the better), tomorrow’s expectations aren’t easily predicted and curveballs are practically the norm. We’ll climb to the next level faster if we make adapting a way of life.

4. No secret handshakes

Many of today’s games are hugely social. Gamers connect across friend circles and continents. They recruit players who think differently than they do, strengthening their teams and improving their chances to score. Inviting a total stranger on board can change the game in unexpected and sometimes marvelous ways. Relationships—being open to new connections with strangers who may not have medical degrees or backgrounds—often is the name of the game in healthcare, too. Welcoming disruptors and letting teams evolve in new directions might refine our goals and the strategies we use to achieve new heights.

5. Play to win while having fun

From checkers and dodgeball to Pac-Man and Minecraft, games have, and always will, come down to competition. That’s ultimately why we are drawn to them. It’s fun to pit your skills and strategy against an opponent, either an individual or a team, or even ourselves, in pursuit of a win. Competition is an essential driver in healthcare, too. It will push us to make our personnel and organizations better.

Game on

From playing games, we learn to persevere past obstacles, think beyond the present and view failure as a teacher. Gamers leveraged those and other skills to build an industry that in 2008 exceeded sales for the movie, music and DVD industries combined. Their success wasn’t from products so much as being agile with technology and moving beyond ideas of the past to new platforms. Gamers advanced their industry by merging the products they loved with technology and innovation. In healthcare, there is much more at stake. It is up to us to lead, creating technology–innovation intersections that will ensure our data take us to the next level.

Megan S. Berlinger, MHA, is the business administrator for the Heart and Vascular Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.


Which category of improvement would take your practice to the next level, and why?

[[{"fid":"23569","view_mode":"media_original","type":"media","attributes":{"height":512,"width":600,"style":"width: 150px; height: 128px; margin: 5px; float: left;","alt":" - s-farmer","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Improvements in the EMR would help with providing higher quality care, creating a more efficient practice for faculty and staff, and also potentially bring improvements to billing and collections.

Stephanie Farmer, MHA

University of Colorado, Denver


[[{"fid":"23570","view_mode":"media_original","type":"media","attributes":{"height":512,"width":600,"style":"width: 150px; height: 128px; margin: 5px; float: left;","alt":" - j-buckio","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Everyone wants and needs data … research, quality, a matrix to measure work, patient volumes, patient flow … it’s a data world. It seems we have multiple databases, and they don’t integrate well. They must.

Joellen Buckio, MHA

University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill


[[{"fid":"23571","view_mode":"media_original","type":"media","attributes":{"height":512,"width":600,"style":"width: 150px; height: 128px; margin: 5px; float: left;","alt":" - c-walker","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]In an industry where no sizable market advantage had historically been gained through investment in technological and human resources to help collect, store, access and analyze data, [healthcare has had] little acknowledged financial incentive to spend precious dollars on these resources. Subsequently, with little demand, the technology companies’ incentives to develop healthcare-specific tools and the educational institutions’ incentives to teach and train healthcare data experts were minimal. The healthcare industry was generally left to adapt platforms and tools built for generic use and lean on analysts with expertise in another field to try to meet their data needs.

N. Colbey Walker, MHA

UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas