How Holograms Are Helping Medical Training


By Leigh Kamping-Carder

The young man arrived at the clinic with a laceration down his back—an injury he’d suffered while mountain biking. After suturing his wound and administering painkillers and antibiotics, nurses left him for 30 minutes of observation. Moments later, he began itching and broke into hives. He was going into anaphylactic shock.

The patient, in this instance, was a hologram. The nurses were students at San Diego State University and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. And the man’s allergic reaction was one of 10 scenarios available in HoloPatient, a mixed-reality software program that offers would-be nurses experience coping with medical dilemmas in a potentially more cost-efficient way than current teaching tools.

HoloPatient is one of a suite of educational applications developed by Pearson PLC, the London-based education company, for Microsoft Corp.’s HoloLens headset. When users press a button on the goggles, a three-dimensional, life-size patient avatar appears in a real-life classroom.

Though neither mixed reality nor virtual reality—which immerses users in a fully virtual environment—is widespread in health-sciences programs, both are becoming more common. Recently, schools like Texas Tech, Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., and the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha have invested in full-scale “simulation centers.” These facilities include mock hospital settings and technology like 360-degree video, interactive digital walls, virtual-reality and mixed-reality headsets and holographic-projection screens. (UNMC’s 192,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in 2019.)

Professors see the technology as a way to immerse students in otherwise inaccessible real-world settings in a relatively cost-effective and easily reproducible way. “Do I want my students to experience a patient fall? Absolutely not,” says Philip Greiner, director of SDSU’s school of nursing, describing a chronic hospital problem. But to prepare them for such a scenario, “I want to be able to reproduce that for every single one of my students.”

Simulation is not new in health-sciences education. To give students hands-on experience, most schools use actors, known as “standardized patients,” or computerized mannequins that blink and breathe like humans. Neither option is ideal. A mannequin can cost up to $60,000 and requires storage space and pricey maintenance, while actors must be brought in repeatedly for each class, Dr. Greiner says. Both require “mulage,” or specialized makeup to mimic wounds and other conditions.

Mixed reality is not a perfect solution for student training. Simulated patients can’t respond to questions, and students can’t touch them. Some professors resist the technology, even as more of their students get comfortable with it outside school, says Robert Hasel, who recently retired as an associate dean at Western after developing its simulation center.

But mixed- and virtual-reality programs like HoloPatient represent an accessible supplement to existing technologies, and a substitute for schools that lack the resources to invest in actors, mannequins or simulation centers, program directors say. “We’re helping in terms of cost, scalability, repeatability, access to the experience,” says Mark Christian, Pearson’s global director of immersive learning.

Over the past two years, Pearson developed three HoloPatient scenarios—the allergic cyclist, an older adult taking a balance test and a victim of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—with the schools. The company filmed the scenes using a standardized patient and Microsoft’s proprietary holographic capture technology, which employs 106 cameras ringed around a 10-foot green-screen dome. The schools tested the programs last year, and will add HoloPatient to a limited number of classes in the fall. In May, Pearson began selling $50,000 packages to colleges, which include four HoloLens headsets and access to the full software suite. (The headsets, which are intended for commercial or developer use, cost either $3,000 or $5,000.)

It’s too soon to say whether mixed-reality or virtual-reality education will improve medical care. But, for Dr. Hasel, “this direction of technology is creating a revolution in the way we teach medical science.”


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