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Board games offer unique teaching methods for military medical students

A hand holds a game card over the game board in mid-play (Image credit: Sharon Holland)
By Christopher Austin

Students at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) are learning the challenges of treating those in harm’s way through rolls of the dice.

Educators in USU’s Military Contingency Medicine (MCM) program have developed several board games to teach students what to expect when they’re deployed, covering topics including managing logistics of medical supplies, supporting troops in the military health system, and even role playing the relations between opposing factions in foreign countries.

“We develop games like this because it’s pretty evident these days that your standard day of teaching with a lecture in front of 200 people doesn’t really convey the information or get adequate retention from students. An interactive way of teaching is more ideal,” said Air Force Col. (Dr.) Tony Kim, assistant professor in the Department of Military and Emergency Medicine (MEM) at USU. “It takes a lot more effort to [create games], but the dividends are much better, because the students are more likely to retain the key points.”

A scorecard and game pieces lay on top of the game board
USU medical students use the Triage, Transport and Track (T3) board game to learn about preparing for deployment.  The game was developed by faculty members in USU’s Department of Military and Emergency Medicine. (Image credit: Sharon Holland)

Gaming has become so prevalent in educating tomorrow’s military health care providers that it was this year’s focus of the USU Faculty Senate’s annual Education Day.

Kim is currently working with retired Army Lt. Col. James Schwartz, chief of staff in MEM, on a new game where medical students investigate the origins of an outbreak at their deployed location. It takes inspirations from the family-night standby, Clue. Players have to go around the camp and talk to non-player characters to gather enough information to properly diagnose the problem, while also following proper military procedure.

Boiling down a real-life scenario into a board game that’s played during an afternoon is no easy feat. Schwartz previously worked with Army Col. (Dr.) Justin Woodson, former associate professor of MEM at USU, to develop Triage, Transport and Track (T3), a game that has players treating patients and transporting them through a health care system set up in a combat zone. Players have to manage time while ensuring that patients are sent to the proper facilities for treatment.

“We probably had three or four iterations before we came out with the final version. It’s been about three years since the initial one we did. We roll out something that’s developed, but as you do this, students will find things that you didn’t think about,” Schwartz said.

Woodson pioneered the use of games to teach MCM at USU, seeking to engage students more than traditional lectures do.

Fourth-year military medical students gather around several tables with game pieces and boards. They discuss and write things down.
Fourth-year students play a modified version of the Michigan Institute of Technology’s Beer Game. (Image credit: Christopher Austin)

Students have really embraced the idea. One game that has received a lot of praise from students is the “Beer” game -- a logistics exercise developed by the Michigan Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, which Woodson adapted to teach medical students the importance of managing their supply of medical provisions in the field.

Many international students preparing to take part in Medical Field Practicum 202, otherwise known as Operation Bushmaster, alongside USU students also participate in the game. Woodson got to speak with Israeli military medical students after they had a chance to take what they learned back to Israel, and was surprised to find that their experience with the game had helped them in their duties.

“I asked why, and they explained they went to their unit back home and immediately saw that they had issues with supplies. They reached back to their experience playing the Beer game and realized that they needed to build a logistics program in their unit before they could properly take care of their soldiers,” Woodson said. “They figured out how to do that in their own system. That was proof that [the game] worked.”

A longtime fan of tabletop games, Woodson believes they are great tools in teaching students because they teach attitudes for handling unexpected scenarios.

A close-up shot of the game board with game pieces on the board and scattered around it
The USU-developed Triage, Transport and Track (T3) board game has student-players treating patients and transporting them through a health care system set up in a combat zone.  Players must manage time while ensuring that patients are sent to the proper facilities for treatment. (Image credit: Sharon Holland) 

This also applies to Operation Bushmaster. The medical field practicum finds students performing various simulated operations within the fictional country of Pandakar. Woodson expanded the setting with inspirations from several countries within the Middle East, complete with a variety of possible environments in which the exercises could take place, and various opposing factions with which to interact. He says he actually tapped into his own background participating in tabletop role playing games to flesh out the Pandakar experience.

These role playing games also emphasize readiness, which is key to making sure USU students are prepared for the unexpected and ready to treat those in harm's way.