The Virtual Healer


Virtual reality allows for immersive learning in the medical field

Georgia Davis / Culture Editor

Doctors rush to the sliding glass doors of an emergency room as the transport team wheels in a patient. A child who fell out of a tree and suffered a blow to the head is on the gurney.


A resident doctor watches the medical professionals as they wheel the patient through the trauma center, taking in the movements and routines the superiors go through.


The hospital is in a state of organized chaos. When “incoming trauma” is announced through the intercom system, everyone is where they are supposed to be.


The resident stands to the side, watching and learning as the care team assesses the injuries and decides what to do next.

“Medical education, I think, is really transforming into trying to become much more engaging, interactive and working on learner engagement satisfaction.”-Tensing Maa, the director for the Situ Simulation Project at Nationwide Children’s Hospital


After taking in the surroundings, the resident takes off the virtual reality goggles that simulated the experience.


Doctors help patients like that who come into emergency rooms across the country. But now those scenarios can be played out for doctors, residents and nurses through a pair of virtual reality goggles, just like they were there in real time.


VR is a perk of new technology in the medical field and in medical education, said Tensing Maa, the director for the Situ Simulation Project at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. Using a simulator while filming instead of a real patient allows for more options when it comes to learning about patient care, she said.


“We don’t have to wait for a real patient to come through,” Maa said. “We can say, ‘Oh, this is a head trauma. This is a burn patient coming through. This is a car accident.’ We can simulate all of those.”


With the aid of VR, hospitals and universities have been able to take a more immersive approach in teaching medical professionals and students. Ohio University is one place at the forefront of developing programs to change the way health care professionals learn how to better lend a healing hand to those who need it.

An Omni camera in the Grid lab in Scripps Hall. (Hannah Schroeder | PHOTO EDITOR)

Benefits of the technology

Every four weeks, Grant Medical Center in Columbus receives a group of new medical residents who are there to learn how to operate in a trauma center. With the amount of information residents have to learn in restricted hours, Dr. Thanh Nguyen said VR is useful in immersing the nearly 110 yearly residents that come through the hospital.


“When they go down to the trauma bay, even though it’s still their first time, they feel like they’ve kind of already seen it,” Nguyen said. “They get more comfortable with trauma evaluations.”


Because the hospital’s orientation is video-driven, there are added benefits, Nguyen said. No life is put in danger by watching footage of a procedure. Despite being virtual, the simulated reality is still effective because it feels real, he added.


“It is a technology revolution, just because it’s gonna be able to be used in so many different ways because augmentation and immersion isn’t just for entertainment.”-Taylor Rohrig, a senior studying games and animation

“No one gets hurt because it’s a video, (but) it’s very real life because they see and hear all of the sounds that are coming out of the trauma bay,” Nguyen said.


Sherleena Buchman, an assistant professor in OU’s School of Nursing, and Deborah Henderson, a professor and director in OU’s School of Nursing, are researching what it is like to be the patient to put it in the better perspective for the doctor or nurse.


The Game Research an Immersive Design Lab, or GRID Lab, at OU has helped them film what it is like to have a certain disease and puts the caretaker in the patient’s position. In the videos, the students interact with the patient’s loved ones and experience symptoms of the disease through VR goggles.


Because the technology is developing, residents are not able to fully immerse themselves in the simulation. The residents are given one viewpoint to look from and can see all around the room from that position with the goggles.


“Instead of lecturing and telling them about these processes, it’s an opportunity through virtual reality for students to actually experience being that patient,” Buchman said. “It made it very real for the students.”


Taylor Rohrig, a senior studying games and animation, is one of the students helping film and stitch together the footage.


The simulation is shot on a 360-degree camera that captures every angle of the space, and microphones are positioned in the room to capture what the health care team says. That means residents can see how the doctors assess the injuries and have a clear view of any procedures. They can look around the room and hear everything the medical team says.


Though VR is often associated with the gaming industry, Rohrig said she sees the benefits of the technology in the medical field, pointing to the fact that it allows for different fields to collaborate.


“(Virtual reality is) having a lot of people blend together and it’s really letting everyone kind of interact,” she said. “It is a technology revolution, just because it’s gonna be able to be used in so many different ways because augmentation and immersion isn’t just for entertainment.”


Rohrig enjoys working on the VR projects because not everyone knows everything about the technology yet, and she is even learning alongside her bosses.


“Feeling like you’re ahead of the game is so gratifying. It makes you feel like you’re actually making progress,” she said. “VR is so cool because … it’s so flexible that being able to work in VR, you have options — you don’t just have to work in games or just television. … I think it’s super important.”

Austin Pace (left) and Taylor Rohrig (right), both seniors studying games and animation, discuss a current project in the GRID lab in Scripps Hall, where 360 video and VR projects are carried out.
(Hannah Schroeder | PHOTO EDITOR)

A booming industry

In 2016, OU’s GRID Lab received approximately $900,000 to pursue VR in four disciplines, one of them in the medical profession. However, health care studies at the university had not worked in virtual capacity before, John Bowditch, director of the GRID Lab, said.


Because the GRID Lab has worked with other schools on campus, medical partners were not hard to find, Bowditch said. A little more than a year ago, the GRID Lab shot VR footage in the trauma bay or center at Grant Medical Center, which has launched partnerships with other medical professionals.  


“Just that footage alone has unlocked partnerships over the last year, including Nationwide Children’s,” he said. “Also, people across the world who had seen it through different educational opportunities are interested in partnering with us to do (more) medical VR stuff.”


This year, the GRID Lab helped film at Columbus’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Instead of using real patients, Nationwide used a simulated patient and captured footage of team of health care professional treating the simulator like a real person, Eric Williams, the immersive storytelling specialist and co-creator of the Immersive Media Initiative, said.


“The idea is to give multi-view perspectives of kind of how a team works,” Williams said. “It feels like you are standing right there.”

Taylor Rohrig, a senior studying games and animation, poses for a portrait while using the virtual reality equipment in the Grid lab in Scripps Hall. Rohrig is a part of a collaboration with the medical school, using virtual reality to simulate training in difficult situations that they will face in the OR and hospital.
(Hannah Schroeder | PHOTO EDITOR)

The next step

Though the feedback is promising, Grant, Nationwide and the OU School of Nursing are still collecting data on the effectiveness of the use of VR.


Bowditch hopes to continue developing the programs to make them even more immersive. The goal is to produce VR in which the residents can actually interact with the patients and have multiple decisions to make along the way — and any repercussions that might come with those decisions.


“So something happens in this scenario, the user’s given an option to choose what to do next and that queues up the next sequence,” he said. “It’s basically a ripple effect from that point on, and so if you make a good decision or a bad decision, you kinda have to live with it from that point forward.”


OU is just one school using virtual reality to examine different aspects of the medical profession. The University of Southern California created a lab that is devoted to applying the technology in different area of medicine and rehabilitation.


Maa would like to keep seeing the technology adapt to become more flexible, accessible and reproducible.


“Medical education, I think, is really transforming into trying to become much more engaging, interactive and working on learner engagement satisfaction,” she said. “It’s exciting to think that we can offer these sort of experiences to our trainees.”

Development by: Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor

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