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How one Michigan children's hospital is using Pokemon Go to brighten smiles

For one children's hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Pokemon Go is brightening their sick patients' days in a sweet way.
/ Source: TODAY

One hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wants to be "the very best, like no one ever was" — and now it's on its way with the help of some our favorite famous pocket monsters.

C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan has started using the new gaming sensation Pokemon Go in its hallways and around the campus to foster greater socialization within patients and brighten smiles all around.

J.J Bouchard, Mott's new digital media manager, spends his days focused on finding new technology for children with both recreational and therapeutic benefits to integrate seamlessly into the hospital environment. When he first caught on to the Pokemon Go craze, he knew he had to bring it in to his team, and what he got was a pleasant surprise.

"It was actually the first time that I really didn't have to present anything. As soon as I came in I had 20 emails saying 'Have you seen this game? This is great,'" he told TODAY.

"It was really exciting to see the entire staff embrace it, so then we moved forward with educating everyone, outlining safety guidelines and establishing our own protocol."

Pokemon, Pokemon GO, Motts Children's Hospital, Michigan
Staff at Motts Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich. use Pokemon GO to foster movement and brighten days for their patients.University of Michigan Health System

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Bouchard, also a certified child life and therapeutic recreation specialist, said that in his new role at the hospital he's able to work closely with game developers to alleviate the pains and stress of complicated procedures for young patients.

So far, the augmented reality that Pokemon Go presents to its players has gotten Mott's children up on their feet and away from their fears.

"I think one of the unique things about the game itself is that you can totally enter a new world, but still see yourself," Jamie Mayo told TODAY. "It really normalizes the hospital experience for these kids. It distracts them from painful procedures, and lets them escape from what may be a scary environment to them."

Mayo, one of only three rehabilitation engineers at Mott, calls this "therapeutic gaming." Along with her colleagues, she focuses on helping children with disabilities use technology to discover alternative ways to be more efficient and achieve their goals. For her, one of the added benefits of Pokemon Go is the level of normalization and engagement that it brings to the patients and even their parents.

"They're all hearing about the game from their friends at home, and now they feel like this is something they can participate in, too." she said. "It also requires a certain amount of interaction with their parents, because of the GPS, so it's great when the adults can see a smile on their child's faces."

Pokemon, Pokemon Go, University of Michigan
"I've never seen our staff get this excited about a new technology. It's encouraging to the kids," Bouchard told TODAY.University of Michigan Health System
Pokemon, Motts Children's Hospital, Michigan, Pokemon GO
"It's such a great motivator to get our kids out of bed and be social," Mayo told TODAY. "It makes everyone happy."University of Michigan Health System

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It's that very level of engagement that has even gotten the hospital staff eager to start catching 'em all, which Bouchard credits to a classic trip down memory lane.

"It's the nostalgia factor of Pokemon," he said. "In the past, we've used augmented reality children's books and video games, but we've never had this type of widespread reaction. It's so exciting."

Pokemon, Pokemon Go, University of Michigan, Mott's Children's Hospital
Bouchard says that he hopes utilizing games like Pokemon Go will inspire other healthcare professionals to think outside the box.University of Michigan Health System

Both Bouchard and Mayo told TODAY that they have Mott's administration to thank for being able to bring the likes of Pikachu and friends into their hallways.

"We're very fortunate that with the way our security is set up, the way our hospital is laid out, and how open-minded our administration is, that we were able to embrace the game very quickly," Bouchard said.

"That being said, we check with our security every day to make sure it's not infringing on the day to day of the hospital. We have special 'Poke spots' set up, so people know where they can freely use the game."

"Any time you can find a way to bring in technology to distract from uncomfortable situations is a good thing," Mayo added. "But be smart about it, too. There's always a worry about a kid's addiction to video games, but we can use it to our advantage, too."

Pokemon, Motts Children's Hospital, Michigan, Pokemon GO
A patient at Mott's Children's Hospital catches a new creature.University of Michigan Health System

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In the future, both Bouchard and Mayo hope that games like Pokemon Go will inspire healthcare professionals and open their eyes to the power of gaming and virtual reality, especially for young patients.

"If you can find a safe way to play the game, embrace it," Bouchard said.

"And it's not just for these patients," Mayo agreed. "It's for life."