Friday, August 8, 2008

Medical Simulation

University of Arkansas opened a SL island in order to build a hospital to simulate ... the workings of a hospital.

The idea is that students and professors can learn and teach how to operate and function in a hospital without actually getting messy, and create simulations of real world problems that would be costly to replicate in real life or just would be situations best left to experts.

That's all good and all, but there's two points I feel aren't addressed.

The first is that no mention of the patient factor is mentioned. Patients are the primarily focus of medicine, not hospitals. Medicine is founded on the idea of treatment of the patient, not the other way around. Isolating these students in a virtual teaching hospital does them a disservice. Let's put it this way: do SL armies adequately train one for the real life US Army? No.

Patients are unpredictable. They are not scripted as in SL. How would I address this? Go around the Mainland and put out a call for volunteers to act as patients. It wouldn't be the best solution, but if you asked the volunteer to simulate as if they had so-and-so illness they'd be up to the task. A good role-player would do, someone who isn't a student (because the students in the classroom get to know each other. They get to know how they each react and thus render them useless as candidates for such a job).

The second problem is how they are exceeding the scope possible within SL. The article makes much hullabaloo over the students and professors creating virtual organs and using them to simulate transplants. This I find abhorrent. Organs are definitely something that can not, and likely will never, be adequately modeled and transplants are worse. You can made models to teach physiology, but actually simulating the way each organ works and interacts, no. You can understand and know the anatomy of the body, but looking at anatomy books and 'living skeletons' will never prepare you for the real thing.

The problem with substitutes (both virtual and real life plastic/books) is the real thing is gory, bland, and somewhat variant. Nerves are not coloured bright yellow, arteries bright red, and veins purple. Muscles do not always jump out in clear obvious fashions. Fat and fascia cover everything and cloud the view of vessels and organs. Virtual worlds don't really get the aspect of getting your hands dirty, and the same applies to books and plastic models.

And using these virtual organs in transplants? Even worse! You have all the complications of one human body transposed with another! Trying to simulate stitching up nerves and vessels, and the urgency to transplant the organ without it dying, and then taking care of the post-op junk that follows such as transplant rejection and such? Good luck with that in Second Life.

Watch an episode of that surgery show (I think it's on Discovery Health?), and now picture yourself doing that operation in real life. Now picture how it would be scripted and simulated in SL, and how similar it would be to real life. My opinion: not at all. I can only assume SL would be used for introductory courses, to familiarize the student, because if a serious course was composed from such a thing, it would be sorely lacking.

Please don't think I'm unfairly targeting these people, either. I hold a stern eye towards other kinds of university and corporations who enter SL for more than advertising. My own university uses SL as a glorified online exam and as a way to model molecules (they build the structure). Both of those could be done more efficiently outside of Second Life (the tests on a dedicated site, and the models in real life with physical parts, now that's a 3D model you can hold in your hand, instead of just looking at it!). Anytime any college enters SL and says, "Gee, we could simulate [so and so]!", I really have to ask why they couldn't do the same in real life or on a more dedicated platform.

Second Life is good for many things. But when people do these kinds of things (such as trying to emulate real life), they forget that SL glosses over some aspects (complications in surgery) or forget there are better platforms out there for the specific goal. I'm all for SL, but you have to beware of trying to fit it into everything. Not everything is a nail.


Hiro Sheridan said...

I think the future of simulations is in the collaborative arena. You could set up epidemic/response simulations in SL at a fraction of the cost of RL, though I agree that we are far from the realism of the 'Matrix' and there is a lot of over-statement right now but it is only going to get better.

Also, Second Life is ideal for visualizing molecules as well as other complex data sets. I for one don't have the time (or the little pieces) to make a molecule with 100+ atoms in RL. In SL not only is it easy but you can also immediately see the minimized structure. Beyond that you can make molecules interact with each other that you just can't do outside of SL at present especially if you are collaborating (over a distance), see

Anna J Tsiolkovsky said...

In hindsight, I did overstate on the visualization of molecules, and it is silly to think of using one hundred pieces of plastic to see a structure.

Please note, however, that I am not contesting that SL is useless necessarily. As you mention, it is good for some simulations such as you mentioned. However, what cracks me up and which I highly doubt it could get better is in the areas that I mentioned (aside from the noted molecules). It's going to get better, sure, but when I read posts about the possibility of organ transplants in Second Life, I have to laugh.

I think that overstatement is indeed the problem here, and in other Second Life projects in general. I'm all for exploring Second Life concepts and projects but we should keep our feet on the ground and not scream to the world that we are doing something useful which is, in the end, a mere sideshow distracting from the actual good work in collaborative 3D simulations and which, to be frank, will likely never get better (caveat: in Second Life, anyway).

I think here is an example of something of what I believe in, with regards to this. Consider if an aerospace engineer came into Second Life and built and scripted various models of air turbulence over a wing surface or from jet exhaust. That's neat and noteworthy. But if he turned and built an airplane and claimed it would teach students the physics of flight and such, I'd have to call bullshit, because the way SL is set up just isn't going to make the cut in that dimension. SL is just a tool in this regard like any other, and not, as some are suggesting especially in that article.

Maybe it's just the way it was written and I have the wrong impression of it. I doubt it. Anyway, that's just what I think.