Testing Products in a Virtual World
Chris Dyke of Medilink West Midlands describes how simulation is being used to test and explore innovative ideas and has the ability to transform the new product development process.
What have Second Life and SimCity got to do with new product development? The answer was revealed at the recent "Making it Real” medical simulation conference hosted by healthcare market specialist Medilink West Midlands (MedilinkWM). Here, a number of speakers, including games developers talking about new games technologies explored the opportunities that exist in the expanding field of medical simulation.
Imagine an A&E department in a hospital, with ambulances and patients turning up randomly during a shift. Virtual world simulation lets us look at the layout of the rooms and corridors, change the number of beds and the equipment that is available. We can alter admissions procedures and stretch resources to the limit with a simulated disaster. Not only is it possible for hospital administrators and commissioners to see how valuable new products or services could be, but manufacturers can test the effectiveness of their new product and quantify its impact, even before it is trialled in a real-life environment.
This is the latest form of ethnographic research. This is the technique of witnessing and observing what’s going on, then using independent and unbiased commentators to question each element of the activity as a means of uncovering alternatives and new ways of doing things that simply have not been thought of before.
A beneficial development tool
Simulation provides the perfect platform to recreate an activity, and then change one or more parameters to see how the results are affected. It is the chance for manufacturers to stand back and look at their new product from a different perspective, or for designers to experience the use of their product concept well before it is introduced to clinicans. They can gain feedback from clinicians by going through the same simulation to improve design elements. In this way, manufacturers can start to reduce the risks of investing in new product development and avoid expensive mistakes.
This simulation can also help manufacturers future-proof products. By testing a number of potential scenarios, manufacturers can see how their product may perform in the future. Just as Hollywood used simulation to teach Americans about nuclear war in War Games as far back as 1983, we are now learning through simulation games to spot accidents and potential quirks and avoid unintended consequences. Simulation can give companies the confidence they need to make expensive strategic decisions, or provide a timely warning during the development process that a rethink may be required.
But simulation is not just about virtual worlds and augmented reality. Sophisticated digital mannequins, actors and haptics are helping make actual procedures incredibly life-like, as if the clinician is working in a real situation. These techniques are ideal for manufacturers needing to test new medical equipment. Real time feedback and clinician’s comments would be invaluable in evaluating the effectiveness of a new product prior to production, and with this research already completed, companies would feel far more confident investing in the expensive process of clinical trials. Clinicians who can see results from simulated testing would also be more likely to agree to trial the prototype preproduction or finished product. Ultimately, this should lead to an easier adoption or procurement route, an area that requires massive investment when addressing a disjointed system such as the NHS.
Selecting the best simulation
So how good does the simulation need to be? It depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you have a new surgical needle and are looking to simulation to see if it is effective, a digital mannequin and haptics can be used.This will give surgeons the tactile experience of using the needle without testing it on real patients or costly cadavers and avoid the delays required to obtain ethical approval for patient testing. In contrast, a computer program that uses an avatar may be all that is required to test whether a new device, system or procedure will save time. With simulated sound, sight, touch and smell at your disposal, you can choose which are relevant to provide the required level of tracking, validation and feedback.
Building on current use
The potential for simulation as a new product development tool is as yet untapped, however, it is already being used in this way for medical training, thus the technology, skills and centres of excellence already exist.
Sir Liam Donaldson, England’s former Chief Medical Officer called for more simulation training in the NHS "to reduce errors and make surgery much safer” and in just one year, three new NHS training centres have opened in the West Midlands. With 287,000 students currently undertaking a professional medical course, there is an incredible marketing opportunity for companies taking a product to market. By ensuring clinicians are practising procedures with the new equipment or product, it is possible to create and gauge future demand and uses.
There is one more area where simulation has the potential to transform the market. Testing the efficacy of medical technology and healthcare products to a national or international standard is still a challenging task, the demands of the Medical Device Directive sometimes difficult to meet. Simulation could be used to create consistent standards and provide an alternative and potentially easier way to prove compliance. There is global demand for standardised accreditations and approvals, and this would have a huge impact on bringing down the cost of research and development. Organisations such as the NHS would also find it easier to adopt innovation because staff would have used and possibly been trained on the simulated version.
Collaboration to take it to the next level
MedilinkWM is working to bring experts in this field together with medical device manufacturers. It is seeking to maximise the potential for the existing technology so that there is no need to start from scratch every time, and to develop a comprehensive tool set that can be used globally.
For too long, the research and development of medical simulation has been seen as the domain of universities, but with significant global investment going into medical simulation, MedilinkWM can see some big commercial opportunities already opening up for medical device manufacturers. Medical simulation is a top priority in Dubai, Europe, the US and in the UK.
But collaboration is needed. If this can be achieved, it is perfectly feasible that the use of simulation in new product development will be standard practice in five to seven years. Global healthcare organisations often send their staff and products overseas for training and testing, instead this is the chance to attract and retain some of the best global talent. This is a real opportunity for the UK to take the lead in this area and become the focus for medical simulation around the world. MedilinkWM wants to hear from parties interested in this endeavour.
Chris Dyke is Connectivity Director at MedilinkWM Ltd
4 Greenfield Crescent, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3BE, UK
tel. +44 (0)121 452 5630
MedilinkWM develops business networks for medical and healthcare companies and by bridging the gap between those who innovate and those who manufacture, it increases the viability of companies through technology and knowledge transfer.
If you found this article interesting please
Sign Up Now for your free subscription to