If technology has been our chief weapon in the fight against the coronavirus, then MedTech has been on the frontline. Whether it is helping treat or vaccinate patients or protecting doctors and nurses, technology has helped save lives.
As such, NHS staff are one of the most important groups battling the pandemic, but also one of the most at risk. Without them, and their expertise, Covid-19 would be a much graver threat.
However, training medical staff during the pandemic has proven a major challenge in its own right. Without face-to-face training, medics lose out on numerous skills – the ability to diagnose, make quick decisions and even communicate effectively with patients.
As a solution, corporate training company Virti has created a virtual patient to help doctors diagnose patients. Not only does this help doctors learn when face-to-face time with real people is almost impossible, but it also offers a more data-driven approach to teaching than traditional methods.
Digit spoke with Virti Founder and CEO Dr Alex Young, an ex-NHS trauma and orthopaedic surgeon that studied at the Universities of Edinburgh and Dundee, about how the new digital patient is helping train medics during the pandemic.
When Virti was founded in 2018, it began by offering a range of VR and AR training videos to help medical staff learn decision-making skills and communication, and then help assess their performance.
“The focus from day one has been how can we scale in-person training and how can we bring in more objective data,” Young said.
Its modular platform received early recognition when it won the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Triennial Conference Surgical Innovation Competition. In also was named one of Time’s Best Inventions of 2020.
Launched last year, its interactive AI patient was in development even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The technology is currently being deployed at Bristol NHS Foundation Trust.
“The initial problem that I saw was that training was quite serendipitous and episodic,” Young said. “I wanted some way that you could have on-demand access to soft skills and communication skills training that was very data driven.
“A lot of complaints against doctors and nurses can be attributed in some way to poor communication,” he added.
The virtual patient uses Natural Language Processing (NLP), speech recognition and narrative branching to simulate a real diagnostic scenario.
Students can then practice asking and responding to questions, working towards a diagnosis, and practising their communication skills. In addition, the AI provides consistent feedback over multiple students. It measures the patient’s speech, body language and mannerisms and provides feedback to the user as they interact with it in real-time.
The educator can select from different demographics and types of patients, along with settings and scenarios to create and manage different virtual patients.
“The user is presented with a virtual human whom they can then converse with. They can diagnose what a patient’s condition is by asking questions and performing an examination on them and ordering specific tests in real time.
“They can then be scored for how they did and compared to their peers. And it can be made easy or as difficult, depending on what the stage or grade of the learner is.”
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The virtual patient can represent a variety of demographics and diagnoses.
“You can configure that through set templates so that what you’re seeing is realistic for the disease presentation, because some groups of people are more likely to get certain diseases.”
With a range of demographics represented, the data-driven nature of the platform means that any obvious bias can be spotted more easily than conventional methods. The scenarios can be customised to include unusual or edge cases, so that differences, for example, in diagnosing or treating a heart attack in male or female patients can be spotted.
As technology progresses, the Virti team are looking to improve the patient with contextual conversational analysis and the ability to analyse students’ body language with eye tracking technology.
Due to the limitations of in-person training, it can be difficult to collect data. This can be a problem for doctors, as reflective work is an integral part of their education.
“Reflecting after an event has happened was just me writing it down and trying to remember it, which is not data driven at all,” Young recalled.
“In teaching environments, that’s done with actors or actresses. Even if you’ve got someone observing, there’s quite a lot of bias and opinion. And it’s not comparing one person to another in a data-driven way.”
Through its platform, Virti can provide objective data on people’s performance, instead of relying on a subjective assessment.
In addition, the AI can offer feedback to students to help them understand how they performed and give the students a chance to provide feedback and analysis on their own performance.
“Then we’ve not only got quantitative data, but also qualitative human data to find out whether this person struggled or found the scenario easy, how made them feel.”
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A company study found that Virti’s AR- and VR-based and data-driven approach boosted knowledge retention by 230% compared with typical training.
In addition, the virtual platform is more scalable than traditional methods, such as using actors in role-playing games, an expensive proposition even when it was possible.
“And it’s not particularly data-driven in how people receive feedback, whether it’s observed communication with an actor, or even if they receive feedback during real-life interactions as well.” (Atrribute)
Organisations across sectors and economies are looking to use the coronavirus as an opportunity to use digital technology to improve opportunities. As such, using a data-driven approach to training and reflective exercises offers a real chance to increase the quality of healthcare.
“Even before the coronavirus hit, there was a huge appetite for digitising and scaling as much education as possible and reducing the time people need to be in face-to-face training environments. I think the digital transformation of the workplace is only going to continue,” Young said.