Using Gamification To Get Sick Kids Excited About Their Treatment

Video games can get kids to do just about anything, including tedious breathing treatments that may save the lives of cystic fibrosis patients.

Dieter Kirsch’s son Jordi suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic respiratory disease. Without a cure, cystic fibrosis is often fatal, although treatments have improved remarkably in recent years. About 30,000 people in the U.S. suffer from cystic fibrosis. Of those, about 15,000 are children. These treatments, which involve breathing exercises through a nebulizer, can vastly increase the life expectancy of Jordi and other children like him.


Unfortunately, Kirsch found it difficult to get Jordi to do the breathing exercises regularly and properly. For the treatments to take full effect, patients are supposed to breathe slowly and deeply so that the misted medicine spreads throughout their entire airway. But getting a toddler to sit still for a half an hour or more every day, breathing at exactly the right speed and depth, is a daunting task.

So Kirsch devised a system that hooked up Jordi’s nebulizer to a video game that responds to his use of the nebulizer. If Jordi is doing his exercises correctly, then he does well in the game. In one game Jordi’s inhalation and exhalation controls a hot air balloon going up and down, avoiding obstacles on the map. In another, he controls an astronaut trying to grab items flying towards him in outer space while avoiding asteroids. Kirsch, who lives in Germany, is hoping to bring the device, the “Jordi-Stick,” to market internationally.

“Getting kids to anything you want them to do, especially at the toddler age, is very difficult,” says Kenneth Paulus of Edison Nation Medical, a healthcare innovation company that is helping to bring the Jordi-Stick to market. “These treatments are challenging even for adults. Up until even a few years ago, a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis was a death sentence for children. So it was critical to Jordi’s well-being that these respiratory therapies be properly administered.”

Depsite Kirsch inventing the Jordi-Stick, he has no medical background. In fact, he’s about as far from a doctor as you can get – a professional skydiver. He simply saw a need for his child and set out to find a solution.

“I think that’s one of the great parts of this story,” says Paulus. “He’s just a dad looking for a solution and took it upon himself to use his own money and resources to create this prototype.”

Despite Kirsch’s lack of medical training, experts seem to concur with Kirsch and Paulus on the problem that the Jordi-Stick is addressing. A 2009 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on cystic fibrosis treatments says that “patient adherence with nebulized treatment is probably the most important factor to consider. It is useless having a nebulizer which delivers the desired dose perfectly if it takes too long or is too complex to operate and maintain as the patient is unlikely to use it.”


The Jordi-Stick is a simple hardware attachment that can hook into any existing nebulizer. That’s good because it means patients can use their existing nebulizers and won’t be required to purchase an entire new setup just to use the gamification platform.

“It’s genius in its simplicity,” says Paulus.

The entire system consists of a sensor that attaches to a mouthpeice and air chamber that measures the pressure in the nebulizer’s tube. That pressure sensor is connected to a USB cord that is plugged into a computer and translated into input in the game. The target rate of breath and pressure can be adjusted to match the prescription of a patient’s respiratory therapist.

The video below is in German, but gives you a good sense of how the games on the Jordi-Stick work.

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.