Kyle Larsen: Dealing with COVID-19 must be a cooperative game

Doctors should do a better job of teaching us all the rules of playing against the pandemic.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Health care workers wait for the arrival of Hill Air Force Base's 388th Fighter Wing fly over at the University of Utah Hospital Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The flyover was a "thank you" to health care workers, first responders, military members and essential personnel, as well as those who are staying home to help "flatten the curve" during the coronavirus pandemic.

I love games! Board games, video games, sports, schoolyard games, it doesn’t matter all that much what type of game it is. I just love games.

I’ve thought a lot about what makes a good game and I’d argue it’s all about the systems and rules behind the game. An ideal game system relies on some level of skill, a strong understanding of the system, ingenuity and occasionally a bit of luck.

It allows for utilization of several different valid strategies to “win” and gives players a reason to vary those strategies as they’re playing — whether that be in response to the actions of another player or antagonizing systems built into the game itself.

My love of games strongly influenced my decision to pursue a career as a physician. Medicine is a beautifully built game. The systems are intricate, complex, interwoven and difficult to master, but understanding and exploiting those systems is intensely satisfying as a result.

These past two years the medical community has asked everyone to join us in playing this game we call medicine as we’ve combatted COVID-19. But we haven’t always been great at explaining the rules. We’ve put together a team and placed them on a court, but we didn’t necessarily tell everyone how to play basketball. Then we get frustrated when we start losing ground because our players go out of bounds, commit unnecessary fouls or don’t “take easy shots.” Meanwhile, those players get frustrated that people are punishing them for not following rules they didn’t know existed.

Eventually, it starts to feel like the rules are being made up on the spot, especially when the players are told that the strategies for playing the game (but not the underlying rules) are being changed. Players start to feel like they’re being exploited or made fun of and stop wanting to play the game entirely — not because the game is flawed, but because it wasn’t ever explained to them.

I’m sorry for the times we in the medical field may have made you feel like we’re making the rules up on the spot. That isn’t how you teach someone to play a game. Anyone who has played a board game can tell you that the best way to learn to play a game is to sit down and play with a friend who already knows the rules. It may still be a bit overwhelming at first, but eventually you get to a point where you understand the systems and can feel confident in playing the game on your own. If you feel confused or frustrated, I hope you’ll turn to your doctor — a friend who understands the rules — for clarification.

That said, you don’t have to know all the rules of a game to start playing. The rulebook to the game we call medicine is a thick one. I would know. I’ve spent the past two years studying 50-70 hours a week trying to understand it. It is hypocritical for us in the medical field to expect others will have the same understanding of the rules that we do. My patients deserve the same level patience and careful listening that others have provided me during my medical training.

After all, it doesn’t matter how well a coach understands the fundamentals of basketball if they don’t pass their abilities on to the players. By encouraging questions and providing honest feedback, a good coach doesn’t just tell their pupil what to do, they teach them how to do it for themselves. Overall, we in the scientific community need to do a little more coaching and a little less lecturing.

We live in a competitive society, but COVID-19 is a cooperative game. The antagonist of this game is not our fellow players – it’s the virus.

Regardless of how we may feel about it, we’re all wearing the same jersey right now. So, let’s all pick up the controller, grab some dice, and pass the ball a little bit more often – we can win this game if we all play together.

Kyle Larsen

Kyle Larsen is a second year medical student at Saint Louis University School of Medicine with a bachelor of science in microbiology from Brigham Young University.

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