A dream job: Using digital technology to support healing

jj bouchard digital media mott children's hospitalYou’ve probably heard the warnings.

“Limit screen time for your children.”

“Focus on real experiences vs. screen experiences.”

There are good reasons for these guidelines.

But what about kids who spend long periods of time in hospital rooms, cut off from friends and peers? What about teens who crave even a small sense of normalcy – average teen activities, and even ways to interact with other teens from within the confines of their hospital room? Can “screens” actually be a lifeline in these situations?

That’s where J.J. Bouchard comes in.

A dream job

As a Certified Child Life Specialist, Bouchard already had three years of experience at Mott under his belt. Over the years, he’d found a special knack for using digital technology to engage with patients at Mott.

“I have always had an interest in gaming and digital media, and seeing the opportunities to connect with kids using tools they are excited about really opened up my eyes to a whole new way of serving our patients,” says Bouchard.

In 2015, he officially transitioned into a new role – the Child Life team’s first Digital Media Manager. The position is funded by the Mott Golf Classic.

“I get to bring new and exciting technology to the kids. It’s my dream job.”

Gaming as therapy

Bouchard’s work with using gaming in a hospital setting actually began more than a year ago. He had been one of the key project consultants involved in Mott’s in-room Xbox 360 project, which launched Fall of 2015, before he stepped into his new role. Now, as full-time Digital Media Manager, he’s working with community partners to move past just having the systems available in each patient room.

“We’re now working with volunteers from Ann Arbor-based GameStart to help our patients actually create their very own video games,” says Bouchard. “Their volunteers work with each kid to figure out what he or she enjoys. Then, they work together to build the video game. Some are simple games that can be created in an hour. Others are more complex. Volunteers have been working with one long-term patient for seven months to create a Sims-like game about caring for someone in your life with special needs.”

For now, kids can enjoy their own games, but the Mott team is working to get some of the games available on Mott’s in-house patient network the GetWellNetwork. “We’re running tests now and hope it will be available soon. The kids are very excited to share the games they’ve built.”

Virtual reality

Bouchard has also been working with the team at GameStart to give Mott patients a glimpse into virtual worlds through the use of virtual reality technology.

It started out with the GameStart team bringing cutting-edge Oculus Rift technology to the hospital for patients to experience a virtual world that often may be out of reach to kids with chronic diseases. Using the technology, Bouchard and GameStart staff were able to take patients on roller coasters and submarines.– without even leaving the hospital floor.

The power of virtual reality can take kids well beyond adventure and distraction, however.

“We’re working with our physical therapy and occupational therapy colleagues to see how virtual reality can help in their therapeutic efforts. For kids who are stuck in a hospital room or have physical limitations that would prohibit them from doing some things in real life, having those experiences in the virtual world is exhilarating and can really enhance their therapy,” says Bouchard.

Reality, improved

If virtual reality creates a new reality for kids to explore, augmented reality could be considered “reality plus.”

“Augmented reality brings together the virtual world with the real world. It’s like putting a digital layer on top of your normal world,” says Bouchard. “We’re working with another Ann Arbor-based company called Spellbound to create augmented reality books on our GetWellNetwork,” says Bouchard. “With these books, kids can use mobile devices to bring characters from books to life. They pop right off the page and run around your room. We’re only starting to deploy this technology but we’ve already found that it’s really fun for the kids (and the adults).”

The future

Through the generosity of the Mott Golf Classic, several partners and many individuals, technology is making a huge difference in the lives of the Mott patients.

“In just a relatively short timespan, we’ve been able to use technology to make a real difference in the lives of our patients. We hear all the time how the gaming and other technology experiences make the kids feel like kids again…not just patients,” says Bouchard. “We’ll continue to explore how we can use technology here at Mott and continue to seek grants and other funding to help turn those possibilities into reality.”

Take the next steps:

mott blog - logo thumbUniversity of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.