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Project example: Virtual Second Opinion

Virtual Second Opinion to support doctors

As part of a research project, the ZHAW School of Engineering has developed the basis for creating a virtual surgical operation envi-ronment. In future, doctors should be able to simulate the planning and execution of operations and thus avoid risks and post-operative side effects.

The institutes of Mechanical Systems (IMES), Applied Information Technology (InIT) and Applied Mathematics and Physics (IAMP) along with the Centre for Aviation (ZAV) have been carrying out successful research for years in the areas of biomechanics, image data processing, medical technology and human-machine interaction. An interdisciplinary project is combining the individual competencies and thus bundling the potential of the ZHAW School of Engineering in the healthcare sector.

“The goal is for our development to be able to be used in numerous other medical sectors.”

Prof Dr Bernd Heinlein, project head, Institute of Mechanical Systems (IMES)

First simulate, then operate

The lumbar spine serves as a sample application zone for this project. “However, the goal is for our development to be able to be used in numerous other medical sectors,” says Bernd Heinlein, project head at the IMES. “The concrete aim of the project is for the attending physician to obtain a patient-specific, functional model based on imaging data from computer tomography, magnetic resonance tomography and ultrasound, which he or she can then use to simulate the planning and implementation of an operation.” In this way one can ascertain, for example, the effect of a spinal disk operation on the post-operative range of motion of the spine. The surgeon can compare various approaches and surgical techniques and test new concepts.

Opportunity for new operation techniques

Today, it is already possible to create three-dimensional, geometrical images of biological structures on a computer using modern imaging processes. Their functional characteristics such as elasticity, non-linearity or stability, on the other hand, are much more difficult to display numerically. “Up until now, a virtual operation planning process including the mechanical-functional requirements has only been possible in a very limited form,” Heinlein comments. “In this sense, our project offers the establishment of a new level of quality in invasive therapies.” The lump sum compensation systems in Switzerland and many other European countries standardise calculable services. As a result, new operation techniques can only be established when they display a clinically improved result or cost savings. Numerical or virtual models offer an attractive and safe method of providing proof of improvement.

“The doctor receives a patient-specific, functional model that he or she can use to simulate the planning and implementation of the op-eration.”

Prof Dr Bernd Heinlein, project head, Institute of Mechanical Systems (IMES)

First demo version

During the next phase, the demo software is to be implemented in a simulated, clinical setting. “In other words, the doctor will carry out a real operation and will then reproduce it virtually,” Heinlein says. The functional post-operative results such as range of motion of the lumbar spine are then documented and correlated with the virtually calculated forecasts and evaluated. As the end result, the doctor receives a computer program that in the future he or she can use beforehand to plan the operation and simulate its functional influence on the musculoskeletal system of the patient.

Combination of research and teaching

This interdisciplinary research project is also incorporated into the teaching curriculum. New ideas and solution approaches in some subject areas are already being worked on in project and Bachelor’s theses. In this way, Computer Science and Systems Engineering students encounter interesting tasks in programming for the automatic segmenting of image files or graphical user interfaces. The biomechanical issues are usually addressed in the Mechanical Engineering programme. The area of aviation adds another programme with the “Human-Machine Interaction” focus area, which has had very little representation in the healthcare sector up until now.

At a glance

Participating institutes and centres

          Participating Bachelor degree programmes:

          Financing: Specially funded project ZHAW School of Engineering

          Project status: finished –Continuing as ZHAW-Spin-off Numex-Solutions.