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STAR Lab launches medical training into augmented reality


Of the many things the COVID-19 pandemic has altered, one of the most significant is the way that students of all different ages learn and grow at schools and universities.


In spite of the cost, the adaptations have their advantages, and now STAR Lab, a team of investigators out of Oregon Health Sciences University, is advancing a way to take distanced learning into the realm of surgical medicine to teach medical students remotely how to heal the sick.


Led by principal investigator Dr. Vahagn Nikolian, Assistant Professor of Surgery, the Surgical Telehealth and Analytics team includes medical students Stephanie MacDonald and Ashraf Samhan and intends to teach technical surgical skills to students using augmented reality.


“The current standard by which students are trained often times requires students to come to a common destination, meet with their trainers, and then work among groups to learn how to become eventual surgeons,” said Dr. Nikolian. “Our goal is that we can use augmented reality-based platforms and develop a platform to subsequently allow for training to happen from the comfort of the home.”


In recent years, remote learning has grown in merit, but the pandemic launched systems of education into a new paradigm—one that affects medical training as equally as elementary, secondary, and undergraduate education.


“It's given many of us a forced opportunity to see the potential of healthcare and virtual care and interactions with patients and people remotely and demonstrating that we can, in fact accomplish a lot even if we're not sitting in the same room,” Dr. Nikolian said.


Dr. Nikolian believes remote teaching is just the beginning of a vast and promising new landscape of healthcare. In particular, remote learning in a context of augmented reality has the potential to connect healthcare trainers and practitioners to countries that lack the resources and expertise of a fully modernized healthcare system. While Dr. Nikolian provided no estimates, there is enormous life-saving potential in the exchange of medical wisdom.


But the potential transcends education.


“We're starting with medical students learning how to do technical skills on inanimate objects,” Dr. Nikolian said. “But our eventual goal is truly to innovate to the point where we'll be able to do tele-surgery. I mean that we will remotely be able to operate on patients irrespective of geographic distances between the surgeon and the patient.”


“This is a longer term goal, but I think a worthwhile goal to increase access to care and really take surgery to the next level.”


The path to innovation is not clear. Dr. Nikolian suggests that security risks—data privacy being compromised or hacked—poses a significant threat to the efficacy of telemedicine. Perhaps more immediately dangerous is the fragility of global communication networks, a dropped call or lost connection at a critical surgical moment.


But right now, demonstrating the feasibility of remote medical education is the first priority for Dr. Nikolian and the STAR Lab team. And Dr. Nikolian thinks it’s a better option even than a teaching hospital, the traditional educational setting for doctors for more than a century, especially for marginalized voices.


“There's a lot of emerging data now coming out regarding the role of the virtual conference and efficacy. It gives people, I think, more access,” Dr. Nikolian said. “You could more easily check in more easily check out, and you may be able, because of the mechanism and maybe less pressure in the large academic conference room, to feel more confident in providing your insights, even though you're a junior trainee or a novice relative to some of the, you know, more prominent names in the room.”


That freedom is especially important where the traditional ways of teaching and practicing medicine have left some groups behind. STAR Lab is a first attempt to reconcile that discrepancy and improve the medical establishment.


“Our eventual goal is to tell a story, but I think iterative improvements in this will entail developing a platform to train our trainees in residency, for instance, to capture the educational benefits of maybe a world renowned surgeon at another site [00:06:10][21.7]


“Our eventual goal is tele-surgery, but I think iterative improvements in this will entail developing a platform to train our trainees in residency, for instance, to capture the educational benefits of a world-renowned surgeon at another site,” Dr. Nikolian said.


“This is a longer term goal, but I think a worthwhile goal to increase access to care and really take surgery to the next level.”

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