NUS Pharmacy introduces futuristic online role-playing game to prepare students for real-life pharmacy practice


05 October 2016


About 200 second-year pharmacy students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) now get to play games in class as part of a module on developing professional pharmacy skills. Designed and developed by a team of NUS staff and faculty members, the innovative multi-player online role-playing game helps pharmacy students acquire practical skills for professional practice in a community or retail pharmacy.


The new online game, where pharmacy students get to practice their skills in dispensing medications and counselling patients, comes with varying levels of difficulty. The game was developed by a team led by Dr Kevin Yap from the Department of Pharmacy at the NUS Faculty of Science, based on feedback gathered from about 500 NUS Pharmacy students.


Training “Generation C” Pharmacists


Tertiary students today belong to “Generation C”, a term used to describe their “connectedness” with digital technologies. Pharmacy educators are constantly looking for innovative approaches to sustain students’ interests, encourage peer learning and improve their practical skills.


“It is often challenging to demonstrate the application and relevance of academic concepts to practices in a real-world setting,” explained Dr Yap. “Currently, these skills are taught through demonstration by role-playing, traditional lectures and tutorials. However, students have few opportunities to practice different scenarios on an individual basis. As such, it could be a challenge for students to integrate what they have learnt and apply to clinical practice settings,” he added.


To address this, Dr Yap and his colleagues - Dr Yap Kai Zhen from the NUS Department of Pharmacy, Mr John Yap from the NUS Computer Centre and Mr Uday Satyamohan Athreya from the NUS Centre for Instructional Technology – decided to look into the use of technology-infused teaching approaches.


The making of an adventure-themed game


The project team conducted two cross-sectional census studies from 2014 to 2015 to investigate the gaming experiences, motivations, and preferences of NUS Pharmacy students. In the first study involving 465 students, the team observed that role-playing games and massively multi-player online role-playing games had the highest enjoyment ratings among a majority of the students surveyed. In the second study involving 497 NUS Pharmacy students, it was identified that most of the students preferred a three-dimensional, post-apocalyptic game with a fantasy, medieval or mythic setting and an adventurer storyline, and played in a collaborative manner.


Based on the results gathered, Dr Yap and his colleagues developed an adventure-themed multi-player online role-playing game where students are encouraged and challenged to think critically about healthcare issues through problem-solving approaches. A pilot study involving 178 second-year students from NUS Pharmacy was conducted in October 2015. A majority of the participants felt that the game was effective in training health communication skills, extraction of drug information, and knowledge on pharmacotherapy of drugs.


NUS students play the role of futuristic pharmacists to “save the world”


This innovative role-playing online game simulates encounters with patients in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. In the game, students will take on the role of pharmacist avatars to solve a “mystery”, such as saving the world from a plague which turns humans into zombies.


Throughout the game, the students will encounter different scenarios which require them to interact and assess virtual patients subjectively and objectively through observations of visual and audio cues. Students will also need to communicate with the virtual patients using a series of questions to find out more about the patients’ medical conditions. “Such scenarios will enable students to learn to be more aware and responsive towards issues that patients face, and to extract relevant information that to help make sound decisions to improve patient care and safety,” Dr Yap said.


The game follows a “choose your own adventure” format in which the virtual patients will react according to how the students respond. Students will then perform the appropriate tasks relevant to the encounter, such as prescription processing, prescribing of over-the-counter treatments, development of a pharmaceutical care plan for the patient, as well as patient counselling. Each game task is designed to train students to acquire a specific skill set required in real-life pharmacy practices.


“Virtual environments provide an engaging and safe environment for students to experiment and learn from their mistakes,” Dr Yap explained. “They also allow students to put themselves in the shoes of a healthcare professional to develop the skills and confidence needed towards patient interactions.”


Mr Reuben Loh, a current third-year NUS Pharmacy student, echoes the benefits of the game. “The use of a game within the pharmacy curriculum could help break the monotony of a lecture and tutorial based system. After playing the game, I feel that I retained more knowledge from a single session than from spending the same amount of time reading about the same topic. I also feel that this interactive game encourages the spirit of learning and experimentation for students, as it provides us with a safe and comfortable environment to explore. If we make mistakes, we can learn from them,” Mr Loh added.


The project team plans to fine-tune the game based on feedback collected from students and faculty members. There are also plans to develop a continuation of the game that will be incorporated into other course modules.