Virtual patient never complains

December 2, 2002

Medical students, as well as inexperienced physicians, generally suffer from inadequate opportunities to gain practical clinical experience. Radiological techniques or medical procedures often have to be learned by trial and error on real patients.One

Medical students, as well as inexperienced physicians, generally suffer from inadequate opportunities to gain practical clinical experience. Radiological techniques or medical procedures often have to be learned by trial and error on real patients.

One possible answer to this dilemma may be pioneering computer simulations and virtual reality techniques such as the virtusMED system, a virtual reality tool designed to improve understanding of spatial relationships that received the infoRAD magna cum laude award at last year's RSNA meeting.

Results of a formal study evaluating whether medical students profit from virtusMED were released Monday afternoon. The study, presented by Dr. Jochem Dormeier, of Braunschweig, Germany, sought to determine the value of a virtual reality system that allows intuitive interaction with the Visible Human and different radiological tomographic data sets to gain an extended understanding of spatial relationship of human anatomy and diagnostic radiological techniques.

"Working on live patients or cadavers has advantages," Dormeier said. "The experience is ëreal.' There is anatomic variation, sometimes bleeding, and the student gets one-to-one training."

Several disadvantages remain, however. Live patients don't necessarily enjoy the experience, which can be stressful or painful. Certain procedures can be performed only once, on live patients or cadavers, he said. And when there is only a single chance to perform specific procedures, student groups are deprived of hands-on experience.

Dormeier and colleagues at Germany's Institute for Medical Research and the Technical University at Braunschweig believe the solution lies in the virtual patient. In Dormeier's study, two groups of students were observed and tested after undergoing different teaching sessions in human anatomy and sonography. One group used virtusMED, the other traditional methods of instruction.

"The group of students who worked with the virtusMED system performed significantly better in tested categories of anatomical knowledge and sonographic skills," Dormeier said. "It is remarkable that the group who participated only in regular lectures and practices have rudimentary sonographic skills, while the other group performs reasonably well."

The virtusMED (Virtual Scenes for Medical Education and Diagnosis) system consists of a motion-tracked examination probe that allows real-time generation of arbitrary tomographic slices in any orientation of tomographic data sets.

"These systems are a promising, adequate, and useful way to learn and practice skills where no patient has to be present," Dormeier said.