Viewing the brain in 3-D. Watching the direction the blood flows through the heart. Viewing a cross-section of a real human body.

Corey Shum, Danny Murphy and Alan Shih show the benefits of their creation of the Virtual Patient. The schools of Nursing and Engineering collaborated on the ambitious project.

UAB researchers and inventors have made this possible with the Virtual Patient, an innovation its creators in the schools of Nursing and Engineering say will revolutionize learning in the classroom and stimulate engineering research.

“We needed something to translate what the students were going to see in a real-time environment in an operating room or on a CT scan or an MRI in the classroom. The only way to do that was to duplicate it,” says Danny Murphy, an instructional design manager in the School of Nursing.

Murphy, whose original idea for the simulator seeded the quest, and co-creators Alan Shih, Ph.D., a research associate professor in mechanical engineering, and Corey Shum, a programmer/analyst in the Enabling Technology Laboratory in the school of Engineering, did just that.

The Virtual Patient is an all-inclusive, mobile display system for full-scale human anatomy that uses internally developed custom software and data from the National Institutes of Health Visible Human Project. It’s constructed in a six-foot customized stereoscopic display system configured to mimic a patient bed and utilizes 360 degree, 3-D imaging and other cutting-edge applications. It also utilizes real patient data.

“The visible human data set already was available through the National Library of Medicine,” Murphy explains. “We’ve just taken that and refined it to create a stereoscopic view of the human body and represent different systems in high resolution; if you wanted to display the differences between a diseased organ in the body and a healthy organ you could do that in high resolution and distinguish between the two.”

Dynamic duo
To make the Virtual Patient work, Shih and Shum needed to come on board. They were the ones who successfully constructed the apparatus and the computer mainframe and set up the baseline data. The next step for them will be to develop the different modules, such as modules for the nervous system, muscular system, brain, etc. Nursing faculty will develop the content in each of these specialty areas.
Shih, whose background is in aerospace engineering, never dreamed he would work in biomedical or nursing areas creating something to help train future health-care providers.

“The Virtual Patient simulator is basically a platform,” Shih says. “The idea is that we will be able to build more and more modules so that we will be able to incorporate more material into it in the future.”

Shum says the Virtual Patient technology enables it to show animations as well as simulations, allowing users to see the results.

“Rather than the doctor saying, ‘This is what happens when the bone breaks,’ we could simulate what happens when the bone is exposed to certain stresses and breaks,” Shum explains. “We take the bone and its material properties and codify that into the software. Then, on the Virtual Patient system, you could see how the crack propagates, how the actual deformity would occur, in 3D, right in front of you.”

Shum’s personal satisfaction comes from creating a mechanism that presents information visually.  “I could say very nice and poetic things, but if you needed to cut me open and use that information it wouldn’t be very helpful. How better to get that information from one person to another than to use technology to show how things can happen,” he says.

Full of possibilities
The UAB Research Foundation (UABRF) is seeking patent protection for the Virtual Patient and its uses and filed its first patent application on this technology more than a year ago

Leona Fitzmaurice, Ph.D., director of Technology Transfer for the UAB Research Foundation, is responsible for protecting and licensing this intellectual property for the university. According to Fitzmaurice, developers and users of the Virtual Patient will generate an entire family of patents, as well as registered copyrights for software modules. She says from what she’s seen of the Virtual Patient, the possibilities for the developers and UAB are endless.

“I think our people are ahead of the curve, because there’s nothing else like this out there that we’ve been able to find,” Fitzmaurice says. “And this is the virtual male patient. You could have the Virtual Female, Virtual Baby. There are even possibilities in veterinary medicine with the Virtual Dog, Virtual Cat, Virtual Horse or whatever. Not to mention the numerous software programs that can be developed.”

Collaboration the key
Although Murphy originated the concept, he didn’t have the technical ability to translate it into a tool for faculty and students. “I’m just an instructional design guy,” he says.

Murphy needed someone who could write software for the Virtual Patient and the logical place to turn, he says, was the School of Engineering.

Nursing Dean Doreen Harper, Ph.D., and Engineering Dean Linda Lucas, Ph.D., soon began discussing how the two schools could work together to facilitate the Virtual Patient, and their involvement was pivotal, Murphy says.

Lucas says the benefits for both schools were easy to see – and the decision to work together was an easy one. 

“You hear all the time about nursing shortages and engineering shortages. We think these two professions need to work together because we need to train more people to work in these areas,” Lucas says. “We’re thrilled to have a relationship with the School of Nursing. We have the utmost respect for what they do. It’s exciting to be a part of an activity that’s going to train the next generation of nurses and produce technology that’s going to aid engineering research.”  

Harper agrees that the collaboration has produced a product that could revolutionize future learning in both schools.

“This creation, impossible without the collaboration between our two schools, links an engineering research with sophisticated electronic learning development,” Harper says. “With the need to prepare many more nurses to care for the Baby Boomers in the next 30 years, the Virtual Patient offers a type of simulated learning that can better prepare students for real-life clinical situations and to use actual clinical experiences more efficiently.

“This technology has the potential to transform how we teach in nursing as well as other health professions, helping students understand and see the complexities of body systems and pathological conditions virtually.”