Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 14, 2012

Researchers Use Gaming to Beat Malaria

For some of you, video games are everything. But even you might not be prepared for the goal of some new ones – saving lives.

According to a story at Healthcare IT News, as reported by iHealthBeat, a team of researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles has created an online game using crowd-sourcing techniques to improve the ability of healthcare providers to diagnose malaria.

The free game can be played by anyone worldwide with access to a smartphone, personal computer or another computing device.

My friend Josephine is from Ghana but she has been in the U.S. many years. When she recently went back to visit family there, she got all her shots, but even sleeping in a mosquito-proof tent didn’t protect her. When she returned to the US, she was very ill. Even though she had grown up around malaria all of her young life, moving to the U.S. had removed her immunity. Returning to her country, she became infected again. Thankfully, she survived, but her family members have not all been so lucky.

Every year, malaria causes over half a million deaths. There is some good news. The International Medical Corps reports that new research is showing that malaria deaths have declined in Africa by one third in the past decade. During that same period, 35 out of the 53 malaria-affected countries outside of Africa have seen a 50-percent reduction in cases. But more than half the world – 3.3 billion people – is still at risk of dying from the disease.

There is still much work to be done, and that’s why researchers thought a game might work well, appealing to the same blood lust kids have for slaying vampires and turning it toward a known and very real killer.

It’s all done with blood cell images. Before the game, players receive a brief online tutorial that uses these to explain what a malaria-infected red blood cell looks like. 

During the game, players see a screen containing several digital images of healthy and infected red blood cells. The players then use a "syringe" tool to "kill" the infected cells.

Estimating scores is slightly more challenging. But the computer is up to it. According to the story, for a certain percentage of the cell images displayed, the computer knows whether the cell is healthy or infected. By reviewing the player's performance on these control images, the game can then estimate a player's accuracy in diagnosing the cells with an unknown status.  

The UCLA researchers were a little leery about using kids, so they recruited a small group of non-experts – primarily undergraduate volunteers – to play the online game, and it was found that the non-experts collectively “were able to diagnose malaria-infected red blood cells with an accuracy that was within 1.25 percent of the diagnostic decisions made by trained medical professionals,” according to iHealthBeat.

"The idea is, if you carefully combine the decisions of people – even non-experts – they become very competitive,” Aydogan Ozcan, an associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at UCLA and author of the study, told HealthITNews.

So let’s hear it for the boys – and the researchers! And hopefully this disease will one day go the way of smallpox.

Edited by Braden Becker

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