Issue date: 17 March 2008
A revolutionary new tool to help train radiotherapy radiographers has just been installed at the University of the West of England. The Vertual (sic) Linear Accelerator (VLA) will enable students to develop technical skills in a virtual setting before they go onto clinical placements. UWE is the first university in the UK to install this version of a virtual linear accelerator and will be the only university in the South West to house this resource. VLAs will be installed in 10 Universities throughout the UK as part of a £5m Department of Health initiative, detailed in the Cancer Reform Strategy, in response to a predicted increase in the need for radiotherapy radiographers to treat cancer in an aging population as identified by the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group (NRAG).
A linear accelerator (LA) is the main tool used by radiotherapy radiographers to deliver doses of radiotherapy to tumours. As these tools are in constant operation in oncology units it is becoming more challenging to allocate sufficient time for students to learn and practise the requisite technical skills prior to practice.
Jan Chianese, UWE Radiotherapy Programme Leader, said, “Everyone in the department is very excited about the VLA as it will mean students get to grips with the basics of operating these complex tools and get far more practice and gain confidence in a safe setting. I must emphasize that clinical practice in hospital settings will continue to be a critical element of radiotherapy training but now that students can practise on the VLA they will develop familiarity and become better practised with the tools used in the hospitals. This will mean they can concentrate on other skills such as communication with patients which can be difficult to do when faced with a complex piece of machinery for the first time.”
Benjamin Roe, UWE Senior Radiotherapy Lecturer said, “The VLA screen takes up an entire wall of a specially blacked out lecture theatre to mimic the setting of a linear accelerator treatment suite. The Vertual Software programme displays a life-size model of a virtual patient lying on a table with the LA positioned above. The student uses a special controller that is exactly the same as those used in the clinical setting. The student is able to move the table and LA into the correct position using the controls. The radiotherapy beam is illustrated by a virtual light beam that shines onto the area of the patient's body to be treated. Students put on special 3D goggles so that the entire procedure is simulated in 3D. Another important aspect of the tool is that there is the capability to view the beam entering and exiting the body in cross section - this will prove very useful in training as we can highlight things like the importance of avoiding organs and the spinal column when positioning the LA.”
Student reaction to the Vertual Linear Accelerator has been very positive. Jo Houlding who is now in her third year enthuses, “In year one, a major concern was not having very much, if any experience on a linear accelerator before going out on placement. Although I didn't find it hard to get to grips with operating a linear accelerator personally, I know that others took some time to do this, which meant less time was spent learning clinical skills like radiotherapy techniques and patient care. Having the VLA will enable students like me to gain knowledge and establish some confidence with the equipment before going out on clinical placement.
“In the second and third years we progress onto more complex treatment techniques. This takes time for us to process the academic principles and then apply them clinically, which is hard in practice as there are many pressures, due to time both in the ethics of having the patient on the bed for too long and with the constant high demand for the machines. By having access to this equipment, there will be more time for us to learn techniques, without feeling this time pressure. It also allows you time to ask questions that sometimes you may not feel able to ask on placement. I really wish this machine had been available when I started the course – it's amazing.”
Kevin Foreman, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, said “This significant investment (over £250K) by the NHS as well as investment by the University demonstrates that UWE is one of the leading universities in the UK for the training of the Radiographers of the future.”
Professor Steve West, Acting Vice-Chancellor of UWE, said “I am really delighted this initiative has been supported by our Strategic Health Authority and the University. Increasingly diagnostic and therapeutic services are at the forefront of technological care improving patient care and safety. The system will help us to train our graduates and provide the NHS with the highly skilled workforce they need.”
For more information about the Vertual Linear Accelerator please go to http://www.vertual.co.uk