WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When Tara Holt, a third-year Purdue University pharmacy student from Frankton, Ind., steps into a pharmacy clean room for the first time, she’s likely to experience a little déjà vu.
The room should look and sound familiar. Nothing ought to feel strange about standing encased in a sterile hair cover, mask, gown, gloves and booties. That’s because Holt and her classmates will have experienced it all before—in a virtual version of a pharmacy clean room. The computer-generated, 3-D immersive environment created in a Purdue project brings to mind the holodeck on the Starship Enterprise, for a serious purpose rather than recreation.
“For those of us who have never worked in a hospital with a clean room, it gave us a first-hand feel of what we can expect when we are on rotations,” Holt said. “The detail that was put into this project really helped make it as close to reality as possible.”
Pharmacy clean rooms are sterile environments where pharmacists and pharmacy technicians prepare materials that need to be guaranteed contamination-free, said Steve Abel, assistant dean for clinical programs in the Purdue School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Generally found in hospitals and home health care companies, the rooms are used to prepare drugs, intravenous drips, syringes, chemotherapy treatments and the like, especially those administered directly into the bloodstream—a factor that makes vital the use of a clean room and proper clean-room procedures. Concern over the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens has only increased the need for such expertise.
The number of clean rooms where pharmacy students can train is limited, however. When the training involves real materials, it also can be expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Abel said Purdue pharmacy students tend to get limited training time at the end of their third year, just before they serve a practicum that could land them in a clean room.
The situation got Abel thinking when he toured Purdue’s Envision Center for Data Perceptualization. The center is part of Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), the university’s central information technology organization, and ITaP’s Rosen Center for Advanced Computing. It uses cutting-edge techniques, virtual environments among them, to explore new methods for research and education.
Astronauts and pilots train in flight simulators, Abel reasoned, so why not pharmacy students? He collaborated with Envision Center Managing Director Steve Dunlop, who enlisted Purdue Computer Graphics Technology Department students Chris Mankey of Fishers, Ind., Chris Sprunger of Lafayette, Ind., and Evan Underwood of Kokomo, Ind.
“To our knowledge, this is the only virtual clean room,” Dunlop said. A Purdue Provost’s instructional grant, as well as funding from Purdue’s Pharmacy School, paid development costs.
The simulator runs in a multiwall immersive environment at the Envision Center and will work on wall-sized panels and portable display systems, too. The equipment employs 3-D glasses and a wireless controller something like a Nintendo Wii’s to put users in the middle of the virtual world being projected and allow them to navigate and manipulate it. Head-tracking capability adjusts the view as a user looks around, or “walks” through, the environment, which is detailed down to the labels on the medicine bottles. The software also has been modified to run on desktop and laptop computers.
The virtual clean room was created from hundreds of digital pictures taken at Clarian Health Partners and Wishard Health Services in Indianapolis, in facilities compliant with USP 797, the federal regulation governing pharmacy clean rooms. The computer-graphics technology students also captured ambient sound and included it in the simulator.
The result stunned Jill Tyner when students began working in the virtual environment during the first semester of 2009. Her reaction wasn’t atypical.
“The technology that made this possible is unbelievable,” said Tyner, a Purdue pharmacy student from Kansas City, Mo. “After this experience, I would feel comfortable stepping into a clean room and explaining the different areas.”
The virtual clean room isn’t perfect—and that’s by design. Abel asked Carrie Jacobs, a sixth-year pharmacy doctoral student from Kalamazoo, Mich., Sheetal Patel, a Purdue pharmacy fellow from Philadelphia, and Ashley Vincent, a pharmacy resident from Indianapolis, to test the simulator before bringing in students and to prepare a lab curriculum for use with the facility. Version one, they decided, was a bit too clean. “It needs to be messier,” Vincent observed.
The Envision Center team added a pop can to a refrigerator for medicines, some empty cardboard boxes along a wall, improperly stored syringes, misplaced medicine bottles and other clean room no-nos. Abel said the idea is to help teach proper clean-room procedures by having students identify improper items included in the virtual environment.
“It helped us learn the regulations and what not to do in a clean room,” said Caryn Davis, a pharmacy student from Valparaiso, Ind. Likewise, Lindsey Corbets said the virtual clean room let her practice what she’s been taught and explore how a clean room is set up. But she sees possibilities beyond that.
“I think virtual reality technology is going to become a very big part of teaching,” said Corbets, a student from Rochester Hills, Mich. “It can be used in many different types of classes, from simulating clean rooms all the way to showing what the inside of a body could look like.”
The Envision Center is exploring several other immersive virtual training projects for health care and for geriatric care purposes, as well as for first responders and emergency personnel and construction managers.