Dec 8, 2021 - Technology

The metaverse medical student

Illustration of a doctor wearing a virtual reality headset.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Medical schools are experimenting with virtual and augmented reality technologies to help doctors-in-training practice their skills.

Why it matters: Replacing actors pretending to be patients with holographic videos that can be generated anywhere can make the hands-on part of medical education cheaper and more flexible.

What's happening: GigXR, a Los Angeles-based startup that provides extended reality technologies — a mix of virtual and augmented reality approaches — for teaching and instruction, is partnering with the University of Michigan to "use holographic content to take some of the most complex parts of training doctors and nurses and make it easier through mixed and extended reality," says David King Lassman, GigXR's CEO.

How it works: When medical students work on their preclinical diagnosis skills, schools will often bring in outside people who will be told to act as if they have different conditions or injuries, or even use tactile mannequins to practice procedures.

  • But both actors and mannequins cost money and require students to be in a single place, which often wasn't realistic or safe during the worst of the pandemic and may not fit with remote education plans.
  • GigXR instead uses high-tech video capture to film a patient presenting various symptoms for a condition, then can project that patient as a realistic hologram in nearly any physical space. (You can see the tool in action here.)
  • Medical students can interact with the hologram on their phones via Microsoft's HoloLens app, and they can even look inside the body "to see how their procedures are affecting actual physiological processes," says Mark Cohen, a professor at Michigan Medicine, the university's academic medical center, who has used the tech with students.

By the numbers: An academic review of the use of head-mounted VR, AR and mixed-reality devices in medical education found the devices were effective as a primary or supplementary tool in 93% of the studies reviewed.

  • "Students are able to train in an entirely safe to fail environment, doing it over and over and over again until it becomes second nature," says Lassman.

The bottom line: Health care takes place in the real world, but adding a little of the metaverse can make training cheaper and more adaptable.

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