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From video games to bots that bleed, the future of doctor training looks wild

Medical schools and training hospitals are looking to games and super-realistic robots to prepare doctors for their day-to-day procedures.

From video games to bots that bleed, the future of doctor training looks wild
[Animation: courtesy of Level Ex]

Imagine a mouth wide and open. It’s your job to feed a plastic line of tubing past the teeth, over the tongue, past the red dangling uvula, down the throat, and into the trachea near the lungs. You are trying to ensure the person to whom this mouth belongs is getting oxygen.

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As you send the tubing further into the throat, you see a butterfly-shaped opening to the airway. It flexes as air pulses in and out. At the top of it is a small tumor. You wait for the airway to flare open and then push the tube through. You hit the side of the tracheal wall instead. The mouth coughs repeatedly and you have to pull the tube out.

What you’re experiencing is a simulation of a medical procedure called tracheal intubation created by a company called Level Ex. The startup makes smartphone video games for doctors to help them train on procedures and certain medical tools. There are games for intubation, colonoscopies, pulling off a polyp with forceps, administering anesthesia, or even pulling a Lego out of a someone’s esophagus (a procedure known as bronchoscopy).

Level Ex is one of several companies reimagining ongoing medical education for doctors. There are a bevy of technologies entering this space, including virtual reality, augmented reality, video games like those from Level Ex, and advanced robots. All are a piece of the broader medical simulation market, an industry that is expected to reach $3.25 billion by 2025, according to Allied Market Research.

Already, researchers are trying to get a handle on how effective instructional games can be for doctors, especially those in countries without a lot of training resources. Last year, an international group of academics, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, reviewed 30 studies looking at the efficacy of gaming in medical education. The study found that gaming may improve doctors’ knowledge. There is some evidence—limited due to small sample size and presence of bias—that gaming could be at least as effective as traditional means of learning such as lectures and textbooks. But in order to prove all this, there needs to be further study that concretely shows that playing video games is accessible across economic strata and leads to better outcomes for patients.

Learners need to learn in their own environment.”

Jim Archetto, Gaumard Scientific
Meanwhile, the health industry is investing in all sorts of technology for improving doctor training. The Cleveland Clinic partnered with American Well last year to conduct trainings over video. Several medical schools are embracing virtual reality headsets such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and Facebook’s Oculus as a way to make medical training more real. Some hospital systems are also using more robust robotized dummies to practice new and old techniques.

A 70-year-old company called Gaumard Scientific, based in Miami, makes robots that bleed and cough and tell the doctor how they’re feeling—they even turn their heads in the direction of the doctor who is speaking to them. These wireless robots run on batteries for between three and six hours at a time. They also connect to real medical equipment, which can then track a patients heart rate and oxygen levels during a procedure.

“Learners need to learn in their own environment,” says Gaumard VP Jim Archetto. “It’s not advantageous to say, ‘Well, imagine he were on a ventilator and this is what would be happening.'” Gaumard supplies 300 products to schools, fire houses, and teaching hospitals around the country. They include robots capable of giving birth, robots with traumatic brain injuries, and robots with gunshot wounds and infected limbs that need to be amputated.

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Pediatric HAL [Photo: courtesy of Gaumard Scientific]

Real learning in real environments is a common theme of the new tech in hospitals and medical education. At Kaiser Permanente’s new medical school, simulating medicine is a key component of how it is revamping curriculum. “We have a sophisticated simulation center where students can learn on mannequins that are run by computers. We can vary their heart rate. We can give them a heart attack, we can deliver a baby, we can inject, can learn how to put in an IV and draw blood,” Dean Mark Schuster told Fast Company in November. We are really trying to spend time thinking through what is most useful for students, what will help them learn how to be outstanding doctors.”

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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