Escape rooms providing a fun way to learn about pandemic safety

ARLINGTON, Va. — Escape rooms are usually an entertaining way for people who love solving riddles and finding clues to spend an afternoon. During a pandemic however, researchers say these team-building adventures can help to make COVID safety drills fun. A team with the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) finds escape rooms which simulate a flu pandemic lead to more participants washing their hands and getting the flu vaccine.

The innovative medical training tool has actually been in use since 2017. It’s the brainchild of Gracia Boseman and Kristy Causey from the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System. Boseman and Causey were looking for a way to boost attendance at voluntary infection prevention classes at hospitals and clinics in Austin, Waco, and Temple.

Their solution was to take a page from popular shows like “The Walking Dead” and turn these training events into zombie-themed High Consequence Infectious Disease (HCID) escape rooms. The team says their idea was not only a success, it led to more staff taking better safety precautions — three years before COVID-19.

“The escape room was successful beyond our wildest expectations,” Boseman says in a media release.

Study authors say not only did class sizes grow by over nine times, handwashing among participants jumped by 61 percent and personal protective equipment (PPE) use increased by 21 percent.

“Staff also became acutely aware that contaminated surfaces play a role in disease transmission as they carry viruses and bacteria, and the importance of wearing PPE — knowledge that would prove invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

What does a pandemic escape room look like?

Participants encountered a novel flu scenario that had them select the right safety gear before entering the escape room. Once locked inside, the group had to work as a team to uncover clues about the illness before time ran out.

“The more senses we engage, the more people learn and the higher the level of retention, so we designed a hands-on, immersive training environment,” Causey explains. “We set up different types of specimen collection kits including viral transport medium and bacterial swabs, and participants had to pick the correct swab. We also placed whitening laundry detergent on surfaces to show where germs were and how they transfer from one surface to the other.”

Since these Texas medical facilities switched to using escape rooms, average attendance at the voluntary education workshops soared from 20 clinical workers to nearly 190 clinical and non-clinical employees. These guests include clerks, engineering staff, and environmental services workers who all help keep hospitals running.

‘Learning is fun’ under the right conditions

While these training programs helped many facilities prepare for COVID, researchers say the actual pandemic cancelled escape room classes in 2020. Before then, the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System trained over 1,100 employees over three years using the escape rooms.

“Engaging healthcare staff in the basics of infection prevention and control is a cornerstone of patient safety,” adds 2021 APIC President Ann Marie Pettis, BSN, RN, CIC, FAPIC. “This team proves that when learning is fun, we can achieve better health outcomes, and that’s a win for everyone.”

As life returns to normal in 2021, escape room classes may make a fun comeback around the country. The Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System has already consulted with a half-dozen other Veteran health care systems looking to train their workers the same way.

Researchers presented their findings at APIC’s 48th Annual Conference.