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Seeing is Believing: Virtual Reality is about to transform medical education

March 07, 2018
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On Dec. 9, 2016, Dr. Shafi Ahmed, a British colorectal surgeon, donned a pair of $130 Snapchat Spectacles, and, using the tiny, hi-res video cameras built into the frame, walked 200 medical students—and millions of curious viewers— through a hernia operation, using the popular Snapchat photo-sharing app. It was just the latest effort by the world-famous surgeon to bring lower-cost technological innovation to medical education. In 2015, Dr. Ahmed performed the world’s first virtual reality (VR) operation, using Microsoft HoloLens headsets to virtually bring together surgeons in London and Mumbai, India to operate on a bowel cancer patient. More than 55,000 home viewers followed the operation in 3D on their VR headsets on YouTube. Virtualizing technology is transforming how doctors are trained in operating rooms and promises to support the next generation of medical students with real-time supervision and instruction. Dr. Ahmed believes that utilizing virtual and augmented reality are some of the best ways to meet the World Health Organization’s call to “scale up transformative, high-quality education.” The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery estimated in 2015 that five billion people lack access to safe, affordable surgical and anesthesia care, leading to about 17 million deaths annually. Saving lives will require a doubling of the surgical workforce, or an extra 2.2 million surgeons, anesthetists and obstetricians over 15 years, the report said. Already, technological innovations are automating diagnoses and allowing for personalized treatments. Medical schools are incorporating these technologies into their teaching. For example, California’s Stanford Medicine is using new software to combine imaging from MRIs, CT scans and angiograms to create three-dimensional models which physicians can see and manipulate. Immersive Touch’s VRtouch system applies varying pressure to the fingertips, correlating to what the user is touching in the virtual world. “Medical education is ripe for disruption,” said Marc M. Troika, associate dean for educational informatics at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “Cutting-edge technologies such as virtual and augmented reality may quickly become standard-of-care and mainstream.” Surgeons at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital used these immersive technologies to “look” inside the bodies of conjoined twins before complex separation surgery. It was good that they did. They discovered a serious heart anomaly that wasn’t revealed in conventional imaging. “You look through the 3D glasses, and you can basically walk through the structure, peeling apart parts so you can look at exactly what you want to,” Dr. Anthony Azakie, one of the surgeons, told NBC News. Falling costs for equipment and software will contribute to greater adoption of virtualized technology. Professional medical headsets now cost from $30,000 to $300,000 each. Facebook’s Oculus Go wireless VR headset, introduced this year, costs just $200. Continuous innovations are needed to meet the changing demands and future challenges of medicine, said Luke Slawomirski, a health economist and policy analyst with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. “The skills and attributes needed by health-care providers will be very different in the future,” said Slawomirski. “Soft skills like communication, teamwork and adaptability to complex environments will be essential.” However, no technology in the near future will replace the experience of interacting with real patients, said Dr. John Quinn, a vascular surgeon in Brisbane, Australia, and the executive director of surgical affairs with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. “You have to be able to touch and feel and do all sorts of other things.”
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