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Interview | Virtual reality has the capacity to transform learning outcomes for medical students: Adith Chinnaswami, co-founder, MediSim VR 

The company, in April this year, launched India’s first virtual reality (VR) lab in a medical college; it hopes to enhance traditional training methods and provide institutions with Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered competency assessment tools to understand and improve students’ performance 

June 21, 2022 / 11:01 AM IST

Adith Chinnaswami is a surgeon by training who, along with two partners, set up India’s first fully automated Virtual Reality (VR) lab in the Puducherry Institute of Medical Sciences for MBBS students to learn key medical skills and patient diagnosis in VR.

MediSim VR started at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras- HealthTech Incubator with the aim of transforming medical skill training in India using futuristic technologies. Its patented technology helps healthcare professionals to develop essential skills virtual patients and situational training modules. With continued research on haptics (the perception of objects by touch and proprioception, or the sense of self-movement, force, and body position), MediSim VR is also the first Indian entity to become a resident company of Johnson & Johnson Innovation Labs, Boston.

In this conversation with Moneycontrol, Chinnaswami talks about the role of VR in medical colleges and the company’s future plans. Edited excerpts:

How does virtual reality in medical colleges work and how is it beneficial for students? 

VR technology has many applications in the medical field. The main use, you can say, for virtual reality is always going to be training-oriented. This is the area with the maximum focus right now because it sets this gold standard in terms of simulation experiences. And the medical fraternity as a whole has started focusing on giving students immersive training. So this basically entails simulation-based training, to teach them skills rather than the academic curriculum, and that is where VR is going to play a major role. There are also various other uses, such as continuing to learn academic content through VR. There are a lot of studies which have shown that there are much greater involvement rates meaning that when VR is being used, there is a significant improvement in learning outcomes; one such study has been conducted by Harvard University. So for VR, the biggest area of application would always be skill training, followed by academic uses as well.

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How did the setting up of the company come about? 

I completed my Masters in 2017 and followed up with my fellowship in minimal access surgery. So, that was when I started doing some research into surgical simulation, simulation-based training and what the training solutions currently available were. At this point, I met my business partners Sabarish Chandrasekaran and Jeno Manickam Durairaj, who were already into VR. And once we started talking, I realized that the talent they had could easily be used to address the problems facing medical education and training. So we put in some research in terms of seeing how well we could translate the skill set into the medical field because the accuracy and the finesse required for medical simulation is a lot more when compared to any other industry. So once we nailed our research, targets and milestones, we were very confident we could achieve what we were trying to do. And that’s when we decided to incorporate. So we started as a registered company in India and subsequently gateways opened at IIT-Madras, followed by Johnson and Johnson Innovation Labs in Boston. This meant that we could also set up a US entity as well. So, we now have a presence in the US and India and we are now a global company.

Can you also tell us how the training of medical students is different using VR? 

Current-day scenario is that students are not really getting trained adequately, it can be due to a multitude of reasons. One, the most important thing is that the previous generation of technology, which is the mannequins, was not built to cater to high volume centres, which means students often tend to observe it and then directly go start practicing it on patients and then learn by making mistakes. This is something which was acceptable as a general consensus for a long period of time, but now we are waking up to the fact that once there is a way to safeguard the patient’s interest by making sure they train ahead, that is no longer acceptable.

And I think that’s where VR plays a major role, students will start learning all their basic essential patient-facing skills on the VR systems. Even before they start approaching a mannequin or a patient, they will be well prepared in terms of what to expect. So they will have access to a skilled training module set out as part of their curriculum during various years. We are currently focusing on pre-final and final years.

And subsequently, when they get to internship, they will have a good amount of confidence and knowledge about the skills which they are about to execute on a patient. And that will be the crux of using VR. The biggest advantage of using VR, I would say, is competency assessment, those which are built in. So students often, when they are learning with mannequins, they may pick up a wrong habit, a wrong way of doing something that essentially will never get corrected unless or until it causes a big mishap. With our system, the student will now know when he is doing something right or when he is doing something wrong. And eventually the institution can assess the competency of students and make sure they attain a certifiable level of competency before they allow a student to graduate. And I think this will give further confidence to the user base as well that they know something well enough. And patients tend to trust doctors a lot more when they are well trained and confident in what they are doing. I think that is going to make all the difference in terms of their perspective.

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What are the expansion plans of MediSim VR for medical colleges? 

So currently, like I mentioned, we are targeting the pre-final and final years of MBBS degree. Moving forward within the end of this year, we will have content for the first and the second years as well. We are also looking to launch content for nursing and allied health professionals. So in terms of this, content is almost ready. We are looking to tie up with the right partners and work on that field. And we expect to have some announcements very soon. So we will expand to not just the medical fraternity but the entire healthcare fraternity. And of course, regional expansion is next on the radar. We have essentially been South Indian. We have focused on our local market, but we do want to start opening up to all regions across the country. And we already have a US partner base but we have inbound interest from Southeast Asian countries.

Other than all of this, I think the major thing we are also looking for is to eventually move into the clinical side of things as VR has a lot of applications in terms of getting used in therapy, in vocational counselling, phobia management, and pain management. And that’s an area where we have been putting in a lot of research over the last few months and we hope to enter the market with a product in that space as well.

There has been a sort of boom in the medical technology field in India and now there are so many firms operating in the space. How are you different from others? 

I think MedTech is a huge, a very general term, and it encompasses a very huge array of industries. But the advantage we would have is that we are essentially placed at the overlap of – if you were to draw a Venn diagram with say MedTech, EdTech and medical, I would say we would be at the cross section of all of these three fields and that gives us the edge. Through our collaborations with partners and Johnson and Johnson, we are making sure that the quality of what we bring in is also matching global standards, the highest possible level in terms of the quality of the product, and making sure that it’s something which is adoptable by the Indian industry as well. In the medical field, we often tend to need to wait a long time before the benefits of technology are eventually brought down to Indian affordability levels. But since our base is here and that is where our roots are we made sure like right from day one we want our product to be something which the Indian user or the Indian patient will actually benefit from.

Sumi Sukanya Dutta
Sumi Sukanya Dutta