Radiation Therapy in 3-D: Students Polish Skills on Virtual Reality Training Tool

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By John Chattaway, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Imagine showing up on your first day of a new job knowing just what your office looks like.

You know the location of your desk, your files on the computer and how to work every program and application before ever logging on.

Would be nice, right?

Thanks to a generous gift from the Kinder Foundation, Radiation Therapy students from MD Anderson's School of Health Professions know exactly how that feels.

The gift was used to buy the Virtual Environment Radiotherapy Training system, or VERT, from Vertual Ltd.

"VERT is a virtual representation of a radiotherapy treatment room," explains Shaun Caldwell, assistant professor, School of Health Professions. "It's an amazing tool that's revolutionizing the way we teach radiation therapy."

Future's Bright for Students With Shades
VERT creates a three-dimensional (3-D) environment that replicates a radiation therapy treatment room, projected on a screen. It uses state-of-the-art, rear-projection technology to project interactive 3-D images onto a screen 14 feet tall and nine feet wide, in the school's Kinder Foundation classroom.

VERT produces captivating, life-size graphics and tracks the movement of the participant, enabling students to visually move around a patient to practice complex procedures. The system also can be configured for different brands of linear accelerators. This gives students an advantage if they pursue a career at another hospital that uses a different brand.

Wearing special 3-D goggles, students can practice their clinical skills in a safe, less intimidating environment before they step into an actual clinic.

VERT is only a learning tool. It's not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make clinical decisions related to treatment.

Failure is an option

"When Radiation Therapy students begin clinical rotations, it can be a nerve-wracking experience," says Kameka Rideaux, instructor, School of Health Professions. "You're always concerned about impeding patient care or so worried about taking too long and making the patient uncomfortable."

"With VERT, we can reproduce everything virtually in the classroom, using actual patient data," she continues. "Students can take their time to learn and ask questions. We can show the entire treatment process from start to finish, so they can see the results and discuss what could have been done differently."

Radiation therapists deliver ionizing radiation to cancer patients. Their goal is to deliver a high enough dose of radiation to kill the tumor but spare normal tissue.

"The one thing VERT allows students to do is fail," Caldwell says, "which is a good thing."

It gives instructors the opportunity to show students what will happen if the beam is off or data is entered incorrectly, without fear of harming an actual patient. He explains that instructors wouldn't allow mistakes to happen in the clinic because precision is so important and there are so many fail-safe measures in place to ensure errors aren't made.

Virtual Benefits

Instructors have seen VERT create a seamless transition for students from the classroom to the clinic. New students are required to work on the tool before going into the clinic. Caldwell says clinical instructors have commented that students who work on VERT have much higher confidence levels.

Take junior Radiation Therapy student Ameenah Fox.

"VERT takes a lot of the scariness out of clinical rotation," she admits. "You're under a lot of pressure when there's an actual patient on the table while you're trying to learn what the buttons do, or which way the machine is going to move. Because of VERT, you know this already. It takes a lot of pressure off."

Caldwell emphasizes that the tool never will fully replace the time students spend in the clinic.

"There's still no replacement for real world experience," he says. "The time in the clinic is invaluable. There never will be a way to fully reproduce the situations you experience with real patients. You just can't reproduce the real issues, illnesses, stress and uncertainty that come with each patient. But for now, VERT at least can prepare our students a little more."

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