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Interactive tool helps physios with complex fine motor skills

Photo: Sarah Fisher, University of Melbourne
A new device is helping student physios at the University of Melbourne to improve their complex fine motor skills, which are critical to assessing and treating patients suffering physical conditions, such as back pain and spinal cord injuries.

Developed by researchers in the University's School of Computing and Information Systems and the Department of Physiotherapy, the interactive device – SpinalLog – looks and feels like the human spine.

SpinalLog works by measuring the pressure being applied to the spine by the student's hand or fingers via technology in smart foam sensors during a simulated assessment.

The data gathered during this simulation is then displayed on a 3D spinal model depicted on-screen, providing real-time visual feedback on the pressure pattern and technique used to mobilise the spine.
University of Melbourne Human-Computer Interaction lecturer Eduardo Velloso, who helped design the device, said SpinalLog offers students a safe way of practising their skills.

"Traditionally, to teach these skills, the instructor demonstrates a force pattern on a volunteer and asks students to practice on each other by replicating the moment," said Dr Velloso.

The difficulty in the traditional approach is that because the movements are subtle, students are not able to obverse them fully, explained Dr Velloso.

"Similarly, when students perform the movements themselves, it is difficult for instructors to provide feedback based on what they can see."

In preliminary testing, it is evident that visual feedback has a significant impact on students' ability to replicate the force pattern demonstrated by the instructor.

University of Melbourne physiotherapy senior lecturer David Kelly said SpinalLog brings the clinic to the classroom by replicating real-life conditions of a human spine suffering varying degrees of stiffness.

"Students get clear and immediate feedback on an authentic feeling spine," said Dr Kelly.

"This means they get a better experience; they learn faster and are able to mimic what the instructor is teaching them, making them better prepared for the sorts of techniques that they'll need as practitioners."

Leslie Trigg, owner and senior physiotherapist at Integrity Physio said SpinalLog would have made a significant difference to his early clinical practice.

"SpinalLog is a great opportunity for students to gain very valuable 'feel' before they reach clinical practice.

"I recall my university days, where my tutor expected me to feel the difference between a stiff joint and a normal joint on a real patient. And my hands had just not had the time to develop that skill.

"As I began in clinical practice, I felt like I was still struggling for some months to know how much pressure to apply.

"After 13 years in clinical practice, I can look back and recognise that for the first couple of years, I probably couldn't feel that much.

"SpinalLog is a valuable introduction to student learning and is likely to improve the quality of physiotherapy service delivery, particularly by new graduates," said Mr Trigg.

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.