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A Facsimile of an Electrotherapy Machine

July 26, 2020

Around the beginning of March was a strange time at university. The Covid-19 pandemic was rumbling in the distance, but it wasn’t quite real yet. Posters about washing your hands started cropping up in the uni bathrooms. Emergency plans were being discussed, but they weren’t really believed to be necessary. Everyone expected things to carry on as normal.

We all left on Friday 6th of March for reading week, and never went back.

Things became very real very quickly that week, and the university (wisely) took the initiative and closed campus, before even the offical country wide lockdown was announced. Lectures moved online, and as lockdown increasingly stretched out in front of us all, it became clear that assessments would need to move online too.

We were lucky, mostly, on the Sports Therapy course, as many of our remaining assessments could move online without much disruption. You can submit dissertations online, you can have viva exams over video calls. We didn’t have any formal written exams left, the kind that usually require you to sit in an exam hall to make sure you’re not just googling each question as you get to it.

Unfortunately, one practical exam remained, for electrotherapy (the delivery of ultrasound, interferential, or similar treatments). These treatments require a therapist to correctly setup a machine to deliver the appropriate desired effect (intensity, duration, tissue depth, things like that). The viva component of the exam - explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing for a given injury - could be done on video. The actual physical delivery is not complicated enough to require much assessment, it’s just applying some pads or moving an ultrasound head around the area (besides, our clinical skills for things like ensuring patient comfort, had already been assessed in a manual therapy exam).

But how do you test the ability of a student to correctly setup a machine to deliver a chosen modality if they’re not standing in front of it? The best we could do was pretend, and just talk through the settings we’d pick as if we had a machine in front of us.

Listening to my lecturer talk about the exam, it occurred to me that really all that was taking place was a series of menu selections. The exam isn’t testing if you can correctly press buttons on a machine - it’s testing that you can pick the right option from a given selection, for all the variables you might change when delivering an electrotherapy treatment. Talking this through without a machine in front of me was going to be brain-bending. So I needed a way to revise this stuff, and I couldn’t just go into a treatment room and start fiddling with a machine the way I normally would. Could I build the menu system for the machine for myself as a revision aid?

‘App’ is a bit of a grand term

Having played with adapting someone else’s JavaScript for the PoseNet app I built for my business module assessment, I was starting to get a grip on how JavaScript can be used to build interactivity into a website (in very basic terms). I didn’t have a lot of time to learn something advanced for web app development (my wife is a software engineer and I’ve often looked over her shoulder at the React based things she’s building and felt like she was essentially performing arcane rituals to tame futuristic cyber gods). What did I know already that could get this job done?

I present: an electrotherapy ‘machine’ built entirely out of showing and hiding CSS modal boxes when the user clicks various buttons.

You can view the code here. It’s nothing special; I was getting better but was still rusty with my basic HTML/CSS, and JavaScript was still a new foreign land I was exploring. But it got the job done.

The hardest part was actually figuring out what the menu options should be. I’d had a go on the electrotherapy machines at uni, but not enough to memorise every part of their menu layout. There were revision videos on our student portal, but the video quality was so low that I couldn’t make out any of the text on the machine screens. I had to learn the parameters for electrotherapy treatment really well, and then use educated guesses to determine what they are probably selecting at each point in the video based on the treatment they were demonstrating, in order to figure out what menu item should occur in what order on the screen. I also found the PDF manual online for the specific model of electrotherapy machine we use, but even that left gaps I had to fill in with detective work.

All this turned out to be fantastic revision. Building a thing really is the best way to learn how that thing works! As a result, by the time I felt happy with the finished product, I didn’t even need to use it anymore.

And then I thought - could an emulation like this stand in for the real thing in the exam? Screensharing could allow a student to select variables in the app while the examiner watched, exactly as they would when standing in front of a physical machine. Would the university accept that? Feeling bold, I emailed it off to my lecturer.

About a month later, it was used in the electrotherapy assessment for everyone on my course.

I’m very proud of this small part I played in helping life carry on during an incredibly turbulent, Covid-19 flavoured time. And I’m pretty sure I’ve build the only online emulation of an electrotherapy machine menu that exists on the internet (let me know if I’m wrong please). Talk about niche. It’s still there, on Github, incidentally. If you’re a sports therapy student looking for a revision aid for electrotherapy, you can try it for yourself by clicking here.

Hope it helps.



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