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Virtual ICU created by faculty, ITaP partnership supports research and training

Computer graphics technology student Eric Palmer and nursing Professor Polly Royal with the virtual doctor.

When a physician is treating a patient in an intensive care unit, nurses are more than partners. They’re also human safety checklists. Are the right medicines and equipment on hand? Has the patient consented to the procedure? Did the doctor wash his hands?

Purdue nursing students are testing a new way to learn — and become comfortable with — the duties they will be performing by practicing in a virtual intensive care unit (ICU), an immersive 3-D environment created at ITaP’s Envision Center for Data Perceptualization.

The virtual ICU not only looks like the real thing, it comes complete with an interactive virtual doctor, one who isn’t shy about letting his nurses know, among other things, that he’s in a hurry to get done.

See a video clip of the virtual ICU in action.

The virtual ICU is part of a collaboration between nursing Professor Polly Royal, civil engineering Professor Phillip Dunston and building construction management Professor Gregory Lasker with funding from Purdue’s Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering. One focus: applying technology to reduce the incidence of hospital acquired infections, which can be deadly to patients and costly to hospitals.

Royal is using the virtual ICU in a study examining whether interactive technology helps senior nursing students better learn and communicate a standard checklist of procedures proven to reduce the number of hospital infections, versus the traditional method of learning by paper assignments and lab sessions.

Besides the checklist, Royal says the virtual ICU also exposes nursing students to a concept called the “authority gradient.” The idea is that nurses, working with doctors as fellow health care professionals, should feel comfortable making suggestions and expressing concerns where necessary, even to a doctor in a hurry.

Meanwhile, Dunston, who directs Purdue’s Advanced Construction Systems Lab, is interested in how such virtual environments might be employed to identify desired design changes earlier in the building design and construction process when it is easier — and less costly — to do something like moving a wall to improve workflow, for example.

Royal thinks a virtual ICU also could be used in accreditation renewal of intensive care unit nurses. A nurse might practice on the version that runs on desktop or laptop computers, which the students use before working in the Envision Center’s multiwall immersive environment. The nurse would then visit a facility similar to the center’s, set up at a hospital or nursing conference for instance, to validate competencies in high-risk procedures.

At the Envision Center, ITaP’s data visualization and virtual reality facility, nursing students wearing 3-D glasses and surgical masks are surrounded by a life-sized ICU projected on three walls, including blinking medical monitors and a whiteboard containing notations about the treatment of the patient. The student stands on one side of a real hospital bed placed in the middle of the immersive environment with a real patient on it — in this case a mannequin.

The virtual doctor is projected on the other side of the bed. As he goes through a series of steps for inserting an intravenous central line for treatment the student nurses are supposed to respond with relevant portions of the safety checklist they’ve been learning.

David Braun, an ITaP research computing specialist who directs the Envision Center, says the project is part of a suite of virtual environments, which might eventually include an entire virtual hospital, that educators and researchers can use to better design, train people to work in and understand the operation of complex health care facilities. In addition to the virtual ICU, the center and Steven Abel, associate dean for clinical programs in the College of Pharmacy, have created a virtual pharmacy clean room in use by Purdue pharmacy students. There also is a virtual hospital room, created in collaboration with James McGlothlin, a health sciences professor and technical director of the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering, a virtual operating room and a virtual community pharmacy.

Eric Palmer and Scott Schroeder, Purdue computer graphics technology students working for the Envision Center, built the virtual ICU with software for creating and animating 3-D virtual environments, as well as virtual people in them. They used images and models of real-world intensive care units as a guide. ITaP staff members Braun and Steve Dunlop and Susan Fisher, coordinator for the Center for Nursing Education and Simulation, also were part of the effort.

Writer: Greg Kline, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-494-8167 (office), 765-426-8545 (mobile), gkline@purdue.edu

Last updated: June 1, 2011