No one dies in virtual reality medicine. No one sues. No one is left scarred by the uneasy hands of an inexperienced surgeon. As a learning tool for a career that will be spent within life and death moments, virtual reality in medical education offers a chance for trial and error, for mistakes without consequence.
With a commercially available virtual reality headset and a computer-generated patient or cadaver, a medical student can learn their life-saving skills through a cheap, wholly inconsequential simulation.
There is a paradox, however, at the heart of most of the current virtual reality medical training. While the training programs are completely digital, access to them is possible only by physically attending an institution that operates them. With the near-ubiquitous availability of the internet and all its digital information-carrying networks, it shouldn’t be necessary to stand in front of a computer to access its contents.
Pairing a remote communication technology like video conferencing with virtual reality training programs would radically increase their availability to both students and mid-career medical professionals. It would also grant the best medical educators direct access to students all over the country, or even the globe.
Virtual Reality in Medical Education
The virtual reality technology used in medical training is comparable to the experience you get by donning a commercial VR headset, such as the Oculus Rift or the Samsung Gear VR, which are currently being employed in everything from gaming to virtual school field trips. And it produces much the same effect. The user’s senses are restricted only to the audio and visuals within the headset. Movement and interaction within the digital space of the best programs are intuitive, gesture-driven head turns and hand waves.
The difference between consumer versions and medical training-specific VR programs is what’s presented on screen. Medical VR programs can recreate the urgency and uncertainty of an emergency room presentation, the complexity of a complete surgical operation, or the 3D detail of an anatomy class without the need for a human cadaver. In addition to replicating reality, VR training can exploit its digital nature to enhance reality. Cadavers can be turned through 360 degrees, and organs and wounds can be enlarged for detailed exploration.
These advances are currently confined to the grounds of multi-million dollar medical institutes, such as the J and K Virtual Reality Learning Center (video below) at Western University of Health Sciences in California, or the new $118 million center at the University of Nebraska.
Digital technologies are fluid technologies, though, so there’s no need for virtual reality to be trapped inside a brick-and-mortar classroom.
Combining VR and VC
In 2014, Dr. Shafi Ahmed showed how far medical training in the digital age could reach. He used Google Glass technology to simultaneously live stream a surgical training session to 14,000 surgeons across 100 countries. He went even further two years later when he streamed the removal of a cancerous tumor in 360-degree virtual reality.
If Dr. Ahmed can transmit surgery live across the internet in virtual reality, then surely the state-of-the-art programs at Western University and the University of Nebraska can be made available to students beyond their campus grounds.
Schools such as the University of California already offer medical training through both virtual reality and remote video conference instruction. Combining the two could open a new world to remote students. The digital programs could be accessed online and the remote students would be guided through their studies in the same webcam-powered way they currently connect with their teacher in real-time–you’d just need to get a VR headset into each student’s hands.
Virtual Reality Medical Training Via Video Conference
Dr. Shafi now works with virtual reality company Thrive, producing a shared online digital office for doctors around the world. The initiative is building toward a platform where thousands of doctors can simultaneously share the same virtual lesson on the latest in surgical procedures.
That idea should be rolled out to medical colleges. The $100 million on-campus centers mentioned earlier could become central digital hubs, feeding technology and information out to less resource-rich schools across the country. That same hub-and-spoke idea is already being employed through video conferencing to improve access to expert advice for doctors in remote and regional areas of the country. There are obvious financial incentives to accessing VR technology–fewer real cadavers, for a start–and a reduction in overhead could lead to more resources spent on teachers and teaching tools…a subsidy for those VR headsets. Each student now needs access only to a repeatable computer simulation, not a cadaver or a real-world situation.
Video conferencing makes all that technology instantly and constantly accessible. VC Daily has previously demonstrated how traveling by video conference could allow a trainee doctor to visit as many as ten different hospitals in a day. Put that ability into the hands of a world-renowned medical expert and you’ve got a lot of young minds being supplied with the best information. And in virtual reality technology, they have a consequence-free environment in which to apply that knowledge.