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Virtual reality applied to midwifery

New virtual reality technology has been applied to midwifery for the first time, in what researchers say is a "huge step for practitioners" around the world.

The VR technology developed by the University of Newcastle has given what is believed to be world-first insight into the internal stages of childbearing and its effect on the human body.

Through use of a digital headset, the Road to Birth technology depicts a virtual life-size female figure, and shows users a visual timeline of pregnancy, including key anatomy, internal changes over time and baby positioning combined with commentary from experienced midwives.

Project leader and midwifery lecturer Donovan Jones said the technology would allow students and experts to virtually experience the stages of pregnancy and common issues such as placental positioning, to prepare for the delivery room.

“At the moment we teach with dolls and pelvises, and I can tell you firsthand from being a student as well as an educator, the position of the placenta is one of the hardest things to learn, and yet it’s absolutely one of the most imperative things to know," she said.

“If a midwife can’t identify its position and lets the woman go into natural labour with the baby obstructed, the baby’s life is at serious risk – simple as that.

“First year midwifery students come into the program and within the first semester are going out and witnessing their first birth. They’re exposed to situations that have the potential to be confronting.

“Not only will this application introduce them to the realism of anatomy, but it bridges the gap between classroom and delivery suite to ensure cognitive resilience, which is going to make them perform better under pressure.”

With one in 25 babies born in a breech position and one in 100 presenting in a position other than the ideal, Jones said the new program had potential to transform midwifery education and reduce complications at birth.

“With Road to Birth, the educator can pop on their HoloLens and project the imagery in front of the class as they walk through the simulation, our students can then either immerse themselves fully with the VR headset or take the application home on their device to learn in their own time, at their own pace," Jones said.

“We know that individualised learning is incredibly effective and everybody learns differently, so Road to Birth is a game-changer in that it’s giving our students a new way and the time to visualise and fully understand the significant impact these common occurrences in the delivery room can have."

Road To Birth will be on trial with midwifery students in Newcastle and Port Macquarie early this year.

IT innovation manager Craig Williams said the technology would also be useful in collecting data about how midwifery students learn.

"As an educational resource, it’s totally immersive and we can eventually look at introducing the program as a procedural task and testing," he said.

"We have the ability to collect the data and see how well students are learning from it, how long it’s taking and what they got stuck on.

“We’re providing students with a safe, repeatable and realistic environment where they can practise techniques and learn from their mistakes before entering the workplace.

“The scope of Road to Birth is clear, with its impact having the potential to reach a global audience, from students and health professionals in cities and remote locations, to expectant parents wanting to understand more about their pregnancy."

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