Michael Francis, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and cell biology at the USA College of Medicine, recently began integrating the use of virtual reality during the respiratory module taught to second-year medical students.

Published Nov 4th, 2019

By Nichelle Smith


Wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles, medical students at the University of South Alabama are able to develop a deeper understanding of pulmonary anatomy by exploring the anatomical subtlety of the living body, an opportunity that is not possible with conventional techniques.

Michael Francis, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and cell biology at the USA College of Medicine, recently began integrating the use of virtual reality during the respiratory module taught to second-year medical students. Originally, diagrams and static snapshots of chest radiographs were used to teach the subject, but by using VR, they can now interact with computed typography (CT) scans as 3D structures. This unique method allows students to actively view and dissect patient anatomy, without removing it, from any position.

So far, nearly 50 faculty, medical and graduate students have participated in this technique and have provided nothing but positive feedback.

A typical lesson consists of using Syglass visualization system and loading images from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) imaging database into VR. With this technique, the patient’s anatomy is revealed as a 3D composite of CT images. Then, a graduate student who works in Francis’s lab, Jennifer Knighten, maneuvers the view and slices plane while another student shares the same virtual space from a different computer. That virtual space is projected on the overhead for the rest of the medical students, who are not participating in the VR experience, to see. “This allows us to point out and discuss key anatomical structures of the pulmonary anatomy,” Francis said. “We then slice through the axial, sagittal, and coronal planes of the body using images from contrast-labeled computed tomography scans to highlight the pulmonary circulation.”

This approach to teaching pulmonary anatomy is being used to augment the anatomical knowledge the students have already gained. “Our aim is to use the novelty of VR and its ability to reveal real life, intact patient anatomy to solidify this knowledge in a unique way,” said Francis.

Osama Abdul-Rahim, M.D., assistant professor of radiology at the USA College of Medicine and an interventional radiologist with USA Health, was among one of the faculty members testing out the VR system. “The VR system opens up many doors as a new educational tool for medical trainees – from medical students to residents and fellows,” he said. “Learning anatomy is an integral part of medical training, and this system allows one to immerse themselves into the body at a scale and with a method not previously seen. It also makes learning this material fun, which promotes further learning and better ability to retain the information.”

According to Rahim, this new educational tool is only scratching the surface and he is excited to see what Francis and his team are able to accomplish in the world of medical education. “As they continue to refine the product and as technology improves, the potential uses are vast and will likely find their way into clinical practice,” he said.

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