Virtual reality can help prevent deadly medical errors

What is responsible for some 400,000 deaths a year and $37 billion in financial losses in the United States alone?

It’s not Covid, cancer or opioids. Rather, they are mistakes made by doctors, medical assistants, nurses and surgeons in the ICU and the emergency room.

To combat this all-too-human – and often avoidable – toll, Israeli startup DecideVR has rolled out a decision support system based on virtual reality (the “VR” in the company’s name).

The software product was developed by Prof. Alex Mintz, director of the Computerized Decision-Making Lab at Reichman University (formerly IDC) in Herzliya.

Mintz, who taught for 18 years in the United States at various higher education institutions, returned to Israel in 2007 to become dean (and eventually cheers) at Reichman and, more recently, to found DecideVR, which has doctoral students and researchers adopted from America and Israel.

DecideVR CEO Alex Mintz. Photo courtesy of DecideVR

Mintz’s original product was intended to be text and image based and run on a standard computer or tablet. But a meeting with Prof. Nir Keren of Iowa State University changed all that.

Keren is a VR expert who has built simulators for NASA to train astronauts en route to the International Space Station. Keren, who serves as the company’s senior advisor, helped DecideVR refocus on the virtual side of the equation.

How it works

To use DecideVR, users connect any ready-made VR equipment, such as headsets from Oculus, owned by Meta. Alternatively, they can run the program on a computer rather than through VR glasses.

In the IC or A&E, users are presented with various realistic scenarios. The simulation is populated by doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, as well as beds and medical equipment. Patients in the simulations are programmed with their own problems and personalities. Users then have to decide what to do when they experience a trauma or emergency.

Illustrative photo by Maxim Hopman via Unsplash

Not every scenario is that intense. A team of residents doing their rounds and checking in with virtual patients is an example of a lower-stakes simulation.

The software provides immediate feedback, either after the simulation or, if requested, during the simulation in real time.

The software is designed to expose unconscious biases and amplify the way users make decisions. The results can also be sent to hospital administrators and department heads as a management summary.

Now in trial

DecideVR’s first specialty to simulate is ICU cardiology. After that, Mintz hopes to expand into general ICU issues, followed by oncology, maternity care, and more.

Mintz tells ISRAEL21c that future simulations could include cyber-attacks, earthquakes, chemical spills and missile strikes — scenarios facing many parts of the world.

DecideVR is now being tested in nine hospitals around the world, including Hadassah, Beilinson and Assuta medical centers in Israel. They are collaborating with DecideVR to develop new scenarios for programming. DecideVR will soon offer more than 50 VR scenarios for ICUs, notes Mintz.

Will the use of VR in the ER become mandatory or voluntary for doctors and residents? “The doctors and department heads love it,” Mintz says. “They want it in their departments. How they use it is up to them.”

To get DecideVR off the ground, creating an ecosystem of other medical VR companies will play a key role, and Mintz is setting up a medical VR forum and a global roundtable with international experts. Companies can present their work on the forum and learn from each other.

The first forum, expected to take place this summer, will explore how things will be done in the future in the metaverse, which refers to a collection of virtual reality, augmented reality and other immersive digital technologies that add a 3D dimension to our interactions with the internet.

Many possible applications

DecideVR software can also be helpful in planning non-medical decision making; Mintz says he has had talks with Israel’s National Fire and Rescue Authority. Everything from department stores to banks could benefit from this.

But as with any startup, focus is key when you get started. And there’s plenty to do in the medical space for now, especially for a 10-person startup company.

“We only started the company four months ago,” emphasizes Mintz, although the decision engine logic has been developed by Mintz for nearly a decade.

He is a prolific author whose books include: Terrorist Decision-Making: A Leader-Centered Approach, Beyond Rationality and The Polythink Syndrome: US Foreign Policy Decisions 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and ISIS† The latter won a Best Book Award from the International Society of Political Psychology in 2017.

Mintz was also the editor-in-chief of the magazine Political Psychology from 2010 to 2015 and taught at Columbia University, Northwestern, Yale and Texas A&M.

But the best decision he made was to turn his decision-making expertise into a product that will save lives.

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