How can artificial intelligence and virtual reality help doctors detect and treat sepsis?

  • Doctors are using virtual reality as part of their training in how to spot and treat sepsis - but how does it work?

The influence of artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere - in how we travel, how we spend our money, in what we choose to eat - but can it really help to keep us alive?

AI is now playing a key role in helping to spot and treat sepsis - saving lives in the process.

A hospital trust in Swindon has been using virtual reality headsets so medics can practice treating ill patients.

The devices are being used to develop training scenarios which simulate treating patients with sepsis - a condition which can lead to damage in the body's tissues and organs.

AI can help by simulating a scenario for doctors to learn how to spot symptoms.

Using an immersive headset, they’re put in a virtual training room with a patient. 

Using AI, students are put in a virtual treatment room with a patient. Credit: ITV West Country

The University of Bath has been looking into how virtual reality can provide healthcare students with engaging learning experiences. 

Joining together virtual reality and AI means training can move away from traditional books and demonstrations, to something more hands-on, without putting patients at any risk.

Doctors at the Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust have partnered with training platform, Goggleminds, to teach doctors about sepsis detection through the power of AI. 

One student said: “It felt really real compared to the simulation suites we’ve been in. When I’ve been on the wards, it felt the exact same.” 

Another student said: “It has more relevance and more context then you get in a lecture or reading on a sheet of paper.” 

'When I’ve been on the wards, it felt the exact same.' Credit: ITV West Country

Azize Naji, Goggleminds founder, said: “It’s all about that visualisation - being able to see something and interact with virtual patients, in a way you can’t do in real life. It takes away that risk as well.

"You can’t do these types of procedures with real patients but you can do it with our virtual patients in a really risk-free, engaging, effective way.” 

Dr Chris Jacobs, Undergraduate Medical Tutor, said: “Sepsis is a big killer unfortunately, we lose many lives to that a year.

"Some of the subtle changes we see with patients are quite difficult for students to pick up or even healthcare professionals. We want to continue to educate them.”

What is sepsis?

Sepsis, sometimes called septicaemia or blood poisoning, is a condition which develops when the immune system overreacts to an infection and begins to damage the body's own tissues and organs.

The potentially life-threatening condition can arise when an infection causes the body's immune system to go into overdrive.

It requires immediate hospital treatment because, if not treated early, it can turn into septic shock and cause your organs to fail.

Every year it is estimated there are 250,000 cases of sepsis in England. Credit: PA

The chance of sepsis progressing to severe sepsis and septic shock, causing death, rises by 4%-9% for every hour treatment is delayed.

There are lots of possible symptoms of sepsis, and it can look like the flu or a chest infection. Sometimes they can start gradually, but it can also come on very suddenly. 

This means it can be hard to spot quickly, especially in children, and people with dementia, learning disabilities and those who have difficulty communicating. 

In 2021, 13-year-old Martha Mills died after developing sepsis while in a London hospital.

A coroner ruled she would most likely have survived if doctors had identified the warning signs of her rapidly deteriorating condition and transferred her to intensive care earlier.

Today, it was announced that NHS in England will roll out ‘Martha’s Rule’ from April to give patients and families access to a rapid review if they are worried about a condition getting worse.

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