The Virtual Patient

If you are interested in the tools that medicine will be using in a few years, watch the TED video on this “virtual patient.” Many readers commented that a screen can’t replace the experience of working with a real body (though one physician noted that cadavers don’t feel like live bodies), yet they are missing the point – such tools will be used to augment, not replace hands-on medicine.

Note the BBC article “Motion – the next step” and think about motion capture in relation to such a 3D tool. Both of these are in the beginning stages, but when the virtual table goes 3D (a hologram); and the ability to sense hand motion becomes more and more exact; and finally, when a glove can mimic the push and pull of tissue – then this tool will begin to transform both education and practice.

The twin skills of being able to understand and interact with the physical world underlie most real-world professions, from carpentry to medicine, engineering to truck driving. Traditional education puts a student’s head into wordy books for a few decades, and then releases you to learn from the world itself. What these tools are going to change is the book phase – having a model of something (a car engine, a liver, an ecosystem) in front of you will not only accelerate learning, but it will change its very nature.

When I was learning anatomy a friend lent me a full-size plastic skeleton, which we had sitting around on our couch for a few months. (In full lotus pose most of the time…) It was glorious and invaluable, even though the joints were a little stiff, like my own… My other tool, in the eighties, was an anatomy coloring book, advanced technology for its day, which I assiduously used to fill in every last vein, nerve, organ, bone, ligament, and cell. Our dissection class in school was limited to a few rubbery pieces left from some generous soul, and though we appreciated the person who donated him/herself, these leftover bits of humanware were almost useless in actually learning how to touch, manipulate, and recognize the feel of a body.

Visualization devices like the table in this article can include scans of a specific person, so they can be much  more than a generic teaching tool. Medical language is complex and technical, so a picture is worth more than a thousand words – it can make a condition real for a patient who otherwise may have no idea what diabetes is doing to her bloodflow, or how amyloid plaques are choking off his neurons in the early stage of dementia. (“As with a normal computer, USB sticks and other devices can be attached to the table and data added. The table can hold up to one terabyte, which is equivalent to about 1,000 patient cases.”)

“There will be no blood, no need for a scalpel or other medical instruments, and afterwards she will be able to place the organs back in the body, reattach the bones and blood vessels, and put the skin back on.”


TED talk


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