By Morris Panner
Medical schools, training programs and hospitals are always looking for new ways to educate students and new doctors on how to effectively treat patients. While reading textbooks, attending lectures and assisting experienced physicians are all key to the learning process, there is no substitute for performing a procedure yourself. Thanks to innovations in virtual reality technology, there are some fascinating new services available to help students practice and improve their abilities in lifelike scenarios.
Simulating Procedures With Virtual Reality
One of the greatest innovations for training doctors is virtual reality. Computer software to help train medical students has been around in different forms for decades (and some of them used to be less sophisticated than an Atari game). But VR operates at a whole different level, allowing students to feel like they are truly conducting a procedure in real time.
Wearing goggles and a headset connected to a computer program while holding a controller in each hand, the user is able to “perform” a surgical or medical procedure on a digital patient that seems very real. While the student is making motions (and important decisions) in real time and real life, the procedure is only occurring in virtual reality. The learning opportunity can extend to an entire class: Other students can also wear goggles and join in to watch their colleague’s progress.
A similar technology called augmented reality (AR) can also be helpful in both medical training and practice. With AR, virtual reality elements are essentially layered onto real-life ones to provide added insight. For example, Augmedic’s xvision system enables a surgeon performing a real-life procedure to “see” inside the whole patient, as if they have X-ray vision. Being able to do the surgery in the context of seeing the patient’s entire anatomy helps them to better navigate the process.
There is also what is known as mixed reality (MR), which is a hybrid of virtual reality and the real world. Microsoft’s HoloLens is an MR technology that has been used by Case Western Reserve University medical students to learn about anatomy through a (kind of) hands-on experience. Donning headsets, students can get a close and interactive view of incredible three-dimensional images of the human body and organs — and the instructor can even conduct the lesson remotely.
Medical Imaging Fuels VR Training
Newer technologies like virtual reality are all the more powerful thanks to established ones, such as medical imaging. For example, Stanford Medicine has been using a software that takes images from MRIs, CT scans and angiograms, combining them to create a three-dimensional model that can be seen and manipulated. Think of it: Rather than just preparing for a surgery by looking over some static images, you can practice by actually moving through each step of the procedure, close up and in real time.
Programs like these aren’t just good for training students; they are effective applications for allowing doctors to consider different scenarios and possibilities in advance of a complex surgery. For example, the patient can be shown in a detailed three-dimensional preview of what will happen in their surgical procedure, which can often provide them with a better sense of understanding and ultimate relief.
Furthermore, the ability to use a patient’s own medical images in a VR simulator offers an exciting glimpse into the future of increasingly personalized forms of medical care.
Still Virtual, But Getting Closer To Reality
You can never get enough practice, and these are great tools for that purpose. Just as the flight industry promotes better safety by having both new and experienced pilots train on flight simulators, the healthcare industry can do the same by having trainees and doctors hone their skills with VR.
While nothing can beat real-world experience, the good news is that the possibilities are limitless when it comes to learning through virtual and augmented reality. As VR programs develop further, they will provide students with the ability to operate on different kinds of “patients” (to mimic differences in size or bone density, for instance), and the programs are sure to get even more precise and realistic with time.
The radiology community should be an active supporter in the development of these tools and software because high-quality imaging is at the heart of creating a realistic experience. By partnering with universities or private developers working on VR, AR and MR training, imaging experts can help ensure that students, doctors and patients utilizing these programs are benefiting from the best innovations and insights that modern imaging has to offer.