Comment »Posted on Wednesday 24 June 2009 at 10:37 am by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

Training to be a doctor is difficult, and not just for the medical students. For prospective physicians to have real life experience they must examine real patients, but this can be awkward for more intimate procedures such as breast exams.

Up until now the solution has been for students to practice on lifeless prosthetics, but a new initiative by the University of Florida, along with three other universities, uses a combination of prosthetics and computer technology to better simulate the experience.

A mannequin allows students to conduct the physical exam, whilst a computer representation of the patient, named Amanda Jones, responds on the screen above. This “mixed reality human” lets medical students converse with their virtual patient whilst conducting an exam.

A mixed reality breast exam in progress.
A mixed reality breast exam in progress.

Students can talk to Amanda in realtime thanks to computer speech and voice recognition software. This allows them to discover her medical history and respond to questions or concerns during the exam.

Feedback is also provided by sensors within the prosthetic breast that send data to the computer simulation, providing a colour representation of the pressure students are applying.

Different situations can be programmed in to the system, such as whether a breast abnormality is present or not, and dialogue lines can also be changed to prevent an unscripted experience. Benjamin Lok, an assistant professor of computer and information sciences and engineering at the University of Florida, says this communication practice is key.

“Studies have shown that communication skills are actually a better predictor of outcome than medical skills,” Lok said. With the virtual patient, “all of a sudden, students have to not only practice their technique, but they also have to work on their empathy.”

Although the mixed reality system is not intended to replace real exams, it does help students get more experience when volunteers are scarce. Thanks to the success of the breast exam system, researchers are now looking in to simulation other intimate procedures. Lok and team are now building a virtual prostrate exam for students to practice on.

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