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Virtual cancer patients to provide hi-tech training

25/09/08

Virtual cancer patients to provide
hi-tech training

Students Danielle Skipsey (left) and Sophie Smith can see the exact spot on the body where the radiation dose has been delivered, using the new VERT technology.Radiotherapy students at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London are set to be among the first in the country to hone their clinical skills in a simulated cancer treatment room. They will start the academic year completing practical elements of their course in a new Virtual Environment for Radiotherapy Training (VERT) suite, which now takes pride of place in the two institutions’ joint Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences.

Using the sophisticated software, students will be able to master some of the skills needed to provide cancer patients with vital doses of radiotherapy on campus. The high-specification equipment, housed in Kingston University’s Cooper House complex, produces three-dimensional images of both a patient and a linear accelerator treatment machine which are beamed on to a large screen. The equipment is so intricate that it even lets students view the exact spot in a patient’s body where each radiation dose has been delivered.

Healthcare students Danielle Skipsey (left) and Sophie Smith have to don special glasses to use the new VERT technology.Deputy Head of the School of Radiography Geraldine Francis said the new technology would revolutionise the way students were trained and had a number of significant advantages. Real linear accelerator machines, which generate high-voltage X-rays to destroy cancer cells, weigh several tonnes and cost around £2 million while virtual ones cost around £300,000 and are weightless. In addition, the real machines quickly become outdated, whereas simulated equipment can easily be adapted with the latest modifications.    

The VERT facility would be a particular asset to the 28 students starting out on the Faculty’s BSc (Honours) course in therapeutic radiography this autumn, Mrs Francis said. “They will be able to practice set-up procedures and learn how to administer treatments in a real-life setting before they begin hospital practice next summer,” she explained.

Previously students had very little opportunity to put their skills to the test before heading off on work placements, where they also had to adjust to patient and staff communication and NHS culture, Mrs Francis said. “Having access to such an advanced teaching tool will dramatically enhance our students’ aptitude, giving them a wider variety of hands-on experience than would be possible in a real treatment room with no risks to the student, patient or equipment,” she said. “Patients also stand to benefit from being cared for by students who are far more confident and highly skilled.”

The Faculty’s equipment was funded by the Department of Health as part of a nationwide programme to improve radiotherapy training. A total of £5 million has been released by the Department of Health to install similar systems across England to boost clinical education, with experts predicting that, by 2016, the number of radiotherapy treatments required by patients will almost double.

Sophie Smith, 23, who has just started work at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford after completing her degree, was one of the first students to put the new technology through its paces. “When I began my studies at the Faculty just a few years ago, we had to make do with pictures in textbooks and it wasn’t always easy to visualise what things would actually be like in a hospital,” she said. “Using software that mimics the machinery in a safe setting where you can learn at your own pace and not harm anyone if you accidentally make a mistake makes it much easier to understand how things work.”

Superintendent radiographer at the Royal Marsden Hospital Sarah Armstrong praised Kingston University and St George’s, University of London for their commitment to providing students with access to the latest teaching technology. “In the past, it could be quite daunting for undergraduates furthering their training at the Royal Marsden to find themselves handling a £2 million piece of equipment for the first time, but now they will have some knowledge of the apparatus before they arrive,” she said. “The joy is that we have a smaller version of the VERT technology in our clinic as well, so if students want to dig a little deeper or reflect on something they’ve picked up while they’re working with us they will have ample opportunity to do exactly that.”

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