Are the days of newly qualified doctors practising skills on real patients numbered? Doctors in the United States are making their first diagnoses and their first mistakes on plastic, wires and computer circuits, rather than flesh and blood. Vishnu Madhok explains
It sounds like one of those riddles that you find in Christmas crackers: what can't be hurt or killed but has a pulse, breathing lungs, and a beating heart? The answer to this particular puzzle is the rather futuristic sounding “virtual patient.” Such “patients” resemble life-like mannequins, with plastic ears and hair, injectable veins, moving eyes, and interchangeable genitals. The virtual reality type simulators can be programmed to simulate a wide range of medical emergencies and then respond accordingly as the doctor treats the patient.
Virtual patients combine video and computer images with tactile feedback. Doctors insert needles and surgical tools into a plastic box whose innards give the sensation of cutting flesh or pushing through organs such as the throat or colon. A video screen shows what a doctor would watch during the procedure.
Professors from over half of the 120 medical schools across the United States that use