Device Takes Telehealth to New Level with 3D Real-Time Visuals of Patients
“Dr. Hologram” sounds like a character from the pages of a science fiction novel rather than a classroom teaching aide. The University of Central Florida, however, is writing it into the world of health care education, providing students with real-world innovation that was once confined to the imagination: a technology that projects a life-sized person in hologram form, beaming in the patient from a video recording or in real-time from anywhere in the world.
Before it joined the UCF faculty, the affectionately nicknamed device was largely used in entertainment and known more commonly by its actual name: the PORTL. It is a product of PORTL Inc., founded by award-winning writer, producer, podcaster and entrepreneur David Nussbaum in 2019. The device was displayed at Comic-Con, the Saturn Awards of the Academy of Science Fiction, the televised iHeartRadio Music Festival, and the 2020 Emmys on the red carpet.
Then Bari Hoffman, associate dean of clinical affairs for the UCF College of Health Professions and Sciences, saw it for the first time.
“I immediately thought of how this could be used to engage our students,” she said. “We knew we wanted to make the technology work to meet our needs so we could continue to train contemporary and compassionate health care providers. This is helping us close the gap we were experiencing in trying to expose our students to a wide variety of conditions they might see in the field.”
With the help of a gift from Brooks Rehabilitation, a Jacksonville-based organization providing medical rehabilitation services throughout Florida, the PORTL device was brought on board at the beginning of the 2021 fall semester.
Finding a Missing Piece
For its first foray into health care education, the PORTL will be used mainly by students in the UCF College of Health Professions and Sciences. The college teaches graduate classes in a variety of health care disciplines, including speech-language pathology, physical therapy and clinical social work.
Lauren Bislick, an assistant professor who teaches speech-language pathology, is using the technology in her class. “We cover anything that can cause motor speech impairments, from a child with cerebral palsy to an adult with traumatic brain injury,” she said. Bislick splits her time between clinical research and her teaching course load. This semester, her classes include Aphasia and Related Disorders, and Motor Speech Disorders.
In her courses and in others at the college, she said, this technology has the potential to be transformative. In the past, professors in these fields have had to rely on prerecorded video and audio clips of patients to give students an idea of how diseases and disorders manifest in patients. But these sources often fall short in preparing students for real patient interactions.
“Even if you have a video recording with someone in full view, the monitor really scales everything down and makes it harder to detect little things,” Bislick said. “When you see the whole person in life size, as with the PORTL, you see these details.”
Hoffman, a speech-language pathologist like Bislick, agreed. “You’re assessing and treating systems made up of muscles that aren’t easily seen by the naked eye. But, for example, if you saw a patient walk in with Parkinson’s disease and their gait was short and shuffling, and their movement was rigid, we know some of those same movements are happening in the small muscles we can’t see below the surface, affecting the way the patient breathes or vocalizes. If you’re only focused on one part, you’re missing a big piece of what’s going on with that patient.”
To create the content that will be shared in classes, faculty members asked patients to visit UCF’s Innovation Center, where the PORTL is located. After getting a look at the machine that would capture their likeness, they sat down to tell their stories, describe their worries, and go through exercises designed to show how their symptoms might be affecting them.
As Bislick explained, however, the recordings don’t have to be done in their studio. They can be done with a video camera from virtually anywhere, meaning more people are able to participate, which benefits both patients and students.
“For some clients, it can be difficult to come to a class. The PORTL gives us the opportunity to beam them in live from the comfort of their homes, and we have the opportunity to showcase them at a certain time point, when certain abilities are still intact. For some it feels like they have the opportunity to teach even after they lose their ability to communicate.”
360 Degrees of Care
“The PORTL is so much more than the video of the client,” Bislick said. “It invites us to think of the whole person. There’s a more humanistic approach to learning about these populations.”
Hoffman explained why the device is so important to UCF. “We want to create compassionate clinicians who understand patients and their journey and struggles. We are planning to use this to share their lived experiences, not only understanding what the patient is experiencing but what the caregiver faces, and how to address mental health issues that often accompany patients who have undergone trauma or are living with a chronic disease.”
Those compassionate clinicians can also use the PORTL to get a more holistic view of how the patient is treated. In the real world, many of these students will be working with a team of other professionals to treat a patient. A speech pathologist might work alongside a physical therapist, for instance, to understand how a patient’s muscles are being affected. But in a classroom, it’s often difficult to depict that realistic collaboration. The PORTL exposes students to these scenarios.
“With the PORTL, we can record these interactions with clients across disciplines to show the same client working with someone in physical therapy, someone in speech therapy, someone in occupational therapy,” Bislick explained. “It gives students a range of perspective in terms of what other professionals do with the patient, and it highlights when and how they work together to assess and treat patients.”