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Modeling Health Care Logistics in a Virtual World

Inefficient health care delivery contributes to rising costs and compromised quality of care and patient safety. To address this problem, researchers are using Second Life, the popular three-dimensional virtual world in which people work and play online, as a platform for modeling efficient health care delivery.

“As most people know — usually by personal experience — modern U.S. health care is hugely expensive and does not always assure safety,” said Craig Thompson, professor of computer science and computer engineering. “What we’re doing is exploring virtual worlds as a model for efficient operations.”

Thus far, researchers under the direction of Thompson and Fran Hagstrom from the College of Education and Health Professions have created a virtual hospital with operating suites, patient rooms, laboratories, a pharmacy, waiting rooms, stock rooms and bathrooms. The building also includes furnishings and diagnostic and medical equipment. Avatars – virtual representations of doctors, nurses, staff and patients — populate the site.

The researchers created trucks and other “smart” equipment to simulate the hospital supply workplace. The equipment is smart because it sports virtual RFID tags, which are similar to barcodes but can identify individual items. The system tracks the location of things and who is responsible for them.

But how will people, virtual or real, and objects work together to make a more efficient system? Consider this scenario: An avatar enters a warehouse to fill a supply order. Once inside, the avatar loads containers of supplies or equipment onto pallets, which are then loaded into a truck. The avatar drives the truck to the hospital loading dock and unloads the pallet. A re-supply robot takes the pallet to supply rooms and uses RFID to access a database that knows the items on the pallet and where to deliver the supplies. Because every item is wired to a computer network, a management system can monitor inventory and distribution in real time without human manipulation.

“In the ‘everything is alive’ vision, objects talk to each other,” Thompson said. “Our virtual objects do this, and, increasingly, so can wirelessly connected real-world objects.”

Please visit vw.ddns.uark.edu for more information or visit the “University of Arkansas” island in Second Life.

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