Nov 25 2020
Digital Workspace

VR Surgery Helps Surgeons Train & Adapt

Advances in visualization tools give medical students and veteran clinicians a new perspective — and a safe way to practice.

Surgical training platforms that leverage virtual reality can provide immersive education for students and surgeons to evolve the skill sets required for advanced medical procedures.

Lifelike visuals and tactile feedback help make experiences comparable to the real thing.

Meanwhile, the use of data collection and processing technologies can give medical universities more precise and objective ways to measure progress. Integrating artificial intelligence and VR could further improve teaching capabilities, according to a PLOS One study published in February.

Other research is encouraging: A 2019 study at the University of California, Los Angeles found that medical students who learned with VR tools completed a given orthopedic procedure an average of 20 percent faster than those in the traditionally trained group — and they completed 38 percent more steps correctly in the procedure-specific checklist, according to the Harvard Business Review.

A variety of VR platforms have been used for several years at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where dedicated surgical simulation facilities are housed inside the school’s Center for Experiential Learning and Assessment.

“The center has a room with a surgical simulator, offering true virtual reality where surgical trainees can go through various general surgical procedures using laparoscopic instruments,” Dr. Rondi Kauffmann, an assistant professor of surgery at Vanderbilt, tells HealthTech.

The tools, she adds, provide haptic feedback technology that gives trainees appropriate physical sensations — the feel of soft tissue, for example, or the vibration of a saw on bone — while they move through a simulated surgery.

By supplementing key sensations of holding surgical instruments and touching patient body parts, it allows for a greater understanding before a real-life event.

How VR Tracks and Analyzes Progress in Real Time

The benefits of VR in a medical training setting are twofold.

“Having a VR platform is incredibly powerful in improving skill acquisition by being able to practice fundamental techniques in a safe setting,” Kauffmann says. “But even more powerful is that we can then provide feedback.”

All of the data, including a user’s movements, are tracked, and the resident can get real-time feedback. When that person practices again via VR, teams can clearly track how much he or she has improved.

“This makes the evaluation process much more objective,” Kauffmann says.

That said, she’d like to see VR platforms more accurately represent the diversity and imperfections of the human body.

“Patients don’t always follow the textbook in terms of anatomy, so there needs to be more variability in the presentation in the anatomy, in the operative situations that might be encountered,” Kauffmann says.

‘Training Without Any Risk’: Why VR Helps Doctors

Over time, VR will be essential for teaching laparoscopic and robotic surgery techniques that require new and precise skill sets, says Dr. Bejoy Daniel, a medical device consultant and a senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

“The more surgeons can practice and train, the more they create muscle memory, and it helps them to become more skilled,” he says. “If surgeons are well equipped and well trained, it boosts their confidence.”

A surgeon who views five live surgeries in a month could do so with a VR headset. The virtual arrangement also can instill comfort and confidence.

“With VR, you get to manipulate the procedure without risking the patient, because you get to try a number of procedures and from there you can adapt to find the most effective way — it’s training without any risk,” Daniel says. “It makes learning a bit more fun.”

Integration of these tools remains a challenge, he adds, noting that interoperability across devices in surgical training programs must be addressed.

“The next step is how these VR companies collaborate to get equipment to talk to each other, view data and make it easier for surgeons to communicate — such as getting specialized guidance outside of the operating room,” Daniel says. 

Where VR Technology in Medicine Is Headed

Deployments can be simple, says Richard Vincent, CEO and co-founder of FundamentalVR, developer of the virtual reality surgical training platform FundamentalSurgery.

Medical programs might use standard, off-the-shelf hardware with haptic VR, Vincent says, as well as less expensive headsets such as Oculus Quest, which don’t have full haptic capacity but are good for procedural rehearsal.

Still, he says, more research and validation of the fast-developing technology in a surgical training context is needed.

He also raises the concern of “VR fatigue,” where the weight of the headset over time becomes a factor. Lighter, more compact hardware could ease the strain.

Progress is far outweighing any problems, however.

“The evolution is accelerating extremely fast in its capabilities, such as processing power within the headsets, or the ability for them to work with multiple other inputs and haptic systems,” Vincent says. “That needs to continue.”

Peera_Sathawirawong/Getty Images

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