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10/1/2009
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Second Life Helps Save, Improve Lives

Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital uses the virtual world for disaster preparedness training, while disabled people turn to it for peer support.

Second Life is a perfect place where hardly anyone gets old or sick. Nevertheless, some healthcare providers are using the virtual world to solve real-world healthcare problems.

Judi Smith heads up training in Second Life for Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Here she is with her Second Life avatar, ''Judi Carver.''
(click image for gallery)
Judi Smith heads up training in Second Life for Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Here she is with her Second Life avatar, "Judi Carver."

In Chicago, Children's Memorial Hospital uses Second Life, with its three-dimensional software representations of landscapes, buildings, and vehicles, for disaster preparedness training, to show employees how to evacuate patients in an emergency. Meanwhile, disabled people use Second Life for peer support, helping one another with the emotional, social, and other problems they encounter in the real world. In both cases, people in Second Life interact using avatars, software representations of themselves or a character of their choosing.

Developed and operated by Linden Lab, the six-year-old service has about 650,000 active users, who turn to it for business, games, live music, and more. IBM, Cisco, and Sun Microsystems are among the companies with a presence in Second Life. The University of Texas recently announced it's building a virtual campus in Second Life, and the U.S. Armed Forces uses Second Life for training.

Staff at Children's Memorial started thinking just after Sept. 11, 2001, about how they would get the kids out of the hospital and to safety in case of fire, tornado, terrorist attack, or other disaster. The hospital also needed a way to do simulations without using the hospital itself, which can't be shut down for training, said training manager Judi Smith.

They tried tabletop drills, in which participants act out a disaster while sitting around a table, but found those exercises lacked realism. That's when the hospital turned to computer simulations. "Health people are physical, tactile people," Smith said. "They can talk about things and read about them, but the closer you can get to doing things in the real world, the better off you are."

Children's Memorial hired a contractor to build a Second Life simulation of its campus and building. The simulation included the outside street, a Starbucks on the corner frequented by hospital staff, as well as a nearby parking garage that might be used to shelter patients during an emergency. The builders included interior details, such as a purple sculpture in the lobby and decorated bulletin boards throughout the building to help hospital staff orient themselves in the virtual world. For realism, they used blueprints of the hospital, photos taken on-site and imported into Second Life, and images from Google Earth.

During the training exercise, a team of about nine hospital staff members, drawn from nursing, security, and administration, logs into Second Life and spends 10 minutes learning the basics of how to navigate and communicate in the virtual world. Then, the drill begins.

The trainees go into the exercise cold, with minimal coaching on what to expect. They're invited to participate in a training drill but aren't told they're going to be using Second Life or that they'll be working on an evacuation and transportation plan, Smith said. "We intentionally selected people with little or no experience with virtual situations," she said. That was because one major goal of the Second Life drills is to teach "situational awareness"--a security term for being aware of your surroundings and alert for out-of-place details that might signal a threat.

In the simulation, a suspicious object--a knapsack-- is left on a corridor floor and the trainers leave it to the trainees to find the suspicious object, identify it as a threat, and then evacuate simulated patients from the hospital, just as they would in real life.

The "patients" are automated software manikins, which Smith called "mannies." They don't do much--just lie in bed. Trainers can indicate the level of a patient's injury or illness using colors: High-acuity patients are colored red, they need to be carried out of the hospital, and someone must stay with them at all times.

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