IDEA Series: Acute Venous Thromboembolism (VTE) Escape Room

escape room

Adult learning theory supports medical educators in moving away from long lectures with minimal engagement from the learners [1]. Core emergency medicine (EM) topics lend themselves well to interactive methods such as gamification [2]. Puzzle-based activities can successfully facilitate team building in medical education [3].

EM residents commonly encounter acute venous thromboembolism (VTE) in the ED and must know the spectrum of presentations and approach to evaluation and treatment, including the use of risk stratification calculators.

The Innovation

  • To improve teaching of acute VTE to EM residents, we created a puzzle-based activity called “Acute VTE Escape Room.” Two teams competed against each other to solve the theme case by unlocking clues with mini puzzles, similar to the format of commercial escape rooms.

The Learners

  • As this game comprised part of the intern core curriculum, all participants were interns, with the puzzles targeted to the expected knowledge base of a PGY-1 EM resident.

Group Size

  • Group size was 4-5 learners


  • Box with the ability to lock it
  • Numerical padlock
  • Tokens
  • Opaque envelopes
  • Laptop or tablet
  • Printed clues, questions and theme case components (Fig 1)
  • Note: If interested in obtaining printouts used in this activity, please contact Dr. Elspeth Pearce on Twitter (@ElspethKPearce)
escape room vte IDEA series

Figure 1. Game Materials

Description of the Innovation

Interns were split into 2 groups to compete against each other and race the clock to solve the case within 45 minutes. Two senior residents, one per group, assisted with the question-and-answer portion of the game. The interns had access to smartphones during the activity, and were encouraged to utilize them to access risk stratification tools during the first mini puzzle.

A theme case of obstructive shock secondary to catastrophic thrombosis of an IVC filter [4] was presented in pieces as the teams unlocked additional components of the case. The teams were given the case stem introducing the patient, chief complaint, and vital signs. They then had to unlock a box using a 4-digit passcode. This first mini puzzle had 3 cases with risk stratification scores that could be deduced. Once they calculated the risk scores they were able to unlock the box and were given the theme case history of present illness, physical exam, and instructions for the next puzzle.

The groups then had to order diagnostic laboratory and imaging tests to further evaluate the patient described in the theme case. Results were made available for tokens, with the cost of the tests similar in scale to what patients might encounter in the ED. This corresponded to an added educational objective to teach residents about resource utilization and cost of care. Labs and ECG cost 1 token and more expensive diagnostics cost 3-5 tokens. The teams earned the tokens by answering written board exam style questions (some sourced from existing board review question banks and others written by the instructor) from volunteer senior residents. Participants received the results of the tests in envelopes after they purchased them with tokens. The envelope for the lower extremity Doppler ultrasound included an additional puzzle necessitating completion in order to obtain the results.

The final mini puzzle included 4 ECGs that could be seen in acute pulmonary embolism with four questions to answer. Participants filled in the answers in boxes. Highlighted boxes yielded a passcode required to access a PowerPoint that then revealed a video of a positive ultrasound for DVT. The interns were expected to interpret this ultrasound, apply this result to the case components they had obtained, and report the final diagnosis and treatment to the instructor. A prize was awarded to the winning team.

Both groups had 45 minutes to complete the activity, allowing the instructor roughly 10 minutes to debrief, answer questions, and deliver a brief lecture on acute VTE. After completion of the activity, the participants filled out a survey evaluating the activity.

Figure 2. Learners Solving Mini Puzzle 2


Figure 3. Learners Solving Mini Puzzle 3



This activity was completed in-person during the hour designated for the intern core curriculum prior to the start of the resident didactic conference. Nine out of ten (90%) interns completed the acute VTE escape room and 6 (66.7%) completed the post event survey (Fig 2). Both groups finished in the time allotted with one group requiring help from the instructor to finish on time. All participants agreed or strongly agreed that the time was used effectively, and the material was presented in a clear and organized manner. Five participants (83.3%) strongly agreed that the material was delivered in an enthusiastic and stimulating way. The comments on the activity were overwhelmingly positive: “Fun and engaging way to learn about the topic”, “I LOVED this activity and really enjoyed it! Thanks for organizing it!”

IDEA Escape Room survey results

Figure 4. Survey Results

Lessons Learned

We successfully developed this game for a small group of residents at approximately the same level of medical knowledge. Adjusting the activity to target a more heterogeneous knowledge base would allow for participation by EM residents of all levels. The questions used for obtaining tokens (mini puzzle 2) and the ECG reading (mini puzzle 3) could be adjusted to the level of learner. We would recommend small group sizes as we discovered the printouts were hard to share amongst the whole group. The debrief session at the end provided a key opportunity to address any remaining questions among learners and clarify any ongoing knowledge gaps. Both groups needed some explanation of the theme case given that it involved a rare and difficult diagnosis to make. As both groups answered some of the most difficult board review questions incorrectly, future iterations may seek to better target questions to the level of the learner.

Theory Behind the Innovation

Gamification, as described by Bíró in 2014, was used as the educational theory foundation for this escape room style activity [5]. Each learner working with a team could create their own path to the correct answers. The groups and the competitive environment provided the motivation to quickly learn and adapt to the puzzles presented. 

The debrief session at the end allowed us to address existing gaps in medical knowledge and unpack emotions experienced by participants during gameplay. Debriefing theory allows the instructors of an activity, usually simulation, to create an emotionally charged event within a safe space for learning [6]. Through the debrief, instructors can identify and address gaps in clinical knowledge uncovered during gameplay.


Read other IDEA Series innovations.


  1. Cooper AZ, Richards JB. Lectures for Adult Learners: Breaking Old Habits in Graduate Medical Education. Am J Med. 2017 Mar;130(3):376-381. Epub 2016 Nov 28. PMID: 27908794.
  2. IDEA Series: Toxicology Virtual Escape Room during COVID-19. Academic Life in Emergency Medicine. Accessed September 22, 2021.
  3. Zhang XC, Lee H, Rodriguez C, Rudner J, Chan TM, Papanagnou D. Trapped as a Group, Escape as a Team: Applying Gamification to Incorporate Team-building Skills Through an “Escape Room” Experience. Published online 2018. doi:10.7759/cureus.2256
  4. Pearce EK. An Uncommon Cause of Shock: Acute Thrombosis of the Inferior Vena Cava. J Emerg Med. 2021 Jul;61(1):67-69. Epub 2021 May 8. PMID: 33972133.
  5. Bíró GI. Didactics 2.0: A Pedagogical Analysis of Gamification Theory from a Comparative Perspective with a Special View to the Components of Learning. Procedia – Soc Behav Sci. 2014;141:148-151. Doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.05.027
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