John McGhee

Using data from stroke patients, we are visualising blood flow in a way that's unique to the individual. We're allowing them to look inside their own blood vessels.
While doctors can diagnose diseases, medical information is often difficult to communicate to patients. Artist John McGhee is using gaming technology to take patients on virtual tours through their bodies, to see their illnesses in 3D.

Artist John McGhee's encounter with a consultant radiologist was a moment of serendipity. The doctor, specialising in medical imaging, was frustrated with the way his scans were being represented to his patients.

At the time a 3D computer generated imagery (CGI) animator, McGhee could see endless potential for improvement. Why not animate the medical data? It was an idea that became the subject of his PhD, which he finished in Scotland in 2009. 

Now at UNSW, McGhee is the Director of the 3D Visualisation Aesthetics Lab and deputy director of the National Institute for Experimental Arts. Just as importantly, the 39-year-old is working closely with staff at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital to develop more effective ways of communicating medical issues to patients.

After a consultation with a doctor, many patients have no real understanding of what is going on within their body due to an illness or an accident, he says. This can result in a lack of buy-in to the treatment being offered and rehabilitation process, leading to a slower recovery and, often, ongoing health concerns.

However, if the consultation was crystal clear, and allowed the patient to use virtual reality technology to “walk around” inside their body and see how, where and why a problem has occurred, the result could be very different.

“We’ve been working on ways of changing the consultation, and particularly how that impacts on stroke rehabilitation,” McGhee says. “I’ve been taking data from stroke patients, data about where the blood moves, and visualising it in a way that is completely unique to the individual.

“Rather than looking at a black-and-white MRI or CT image on a light box, we’re allowing patients to look inside their own blood vessels by putting on a virtual reality headset. It helps them to visualise and understand how treatment might impact upon them.”

McGhee and his team are developing these virtual reality tours using the latest in animation technology from the film and video game industries, and the technology is being trialled in a clinical setting.

McGhee is also working with the Children’s Cancer Institute and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-nano Science and Technology (CBNS) to improve communication to younger patients. The animations are about cellular activity in the body, which may be causing the formation and growth of tumours.

In these animations, colour and texture are used to reinforce the young patients’ understanding and to control their emotional reaction. The elements can be altered according to the age of the patient.

For McGhee, the objective is to take advantage of existing and emerging technologies to improve health care, hasten recoveries and optimise outcomes.

“The whole system is changing,” McGhee says. “Clinical professionals are much more engaged in dialogue with their patients. Once these processes we are working on are more fully developed, the clinicians can use visualisation to help patients see what is happening in their body. That, in turn, could jolt the patient into participating more in their therapy.”