First-person surgeons: How virtual reality is changing healthcare

First Person Surgeons

Virtual Reality (VR) is a hot topic and today's gamers might just be tomorrow's surgeons.

No longer an '80s sci-fi pipedream, VR headsets are readily available at a range of prices. With recent technological advances improving visual realism and providing accurate controls, they just might become the smartphones of the future.

But it's not all fun and games. VR technology is predicted to be worth billions of dollars in coming years and it’s already playing an important role in healthcare.

From surgery to psychology and from undergraduate training to the hospital bed, the health industry has found all kinds of uses for VR. Here are some examples of what's happening now, and what might be coming soon.

Surgical training

Surgeons need lots of training, because mistakes on the job can have fatal consequences. The good news is that training using VR headsets and 'haptic' training tools that give physical feedback (like the rumble in your video game controller) is now a reality. This training gives trainee surgeons the opportunity to practise risk-free on 'virtual patients'.

If you reckon that sounds like a video game, you're not far off – in fact, the CSIRO has developed a colonoscopy simulator using game technology. It allows trainees to practise their skills on a realistic simulation of a human colon using an authentic colonoscope.

Another emerging use for VR in surgical training is 360-degree recordings of operations. In April 2016, healthcare company Medical Realities produced the world's first surgery VR livestream – an operation performed by cancer surgeon Shafi Ahmed at the Royal London Hospital. The stream has been watched more than 50,000 times; it's quite something to have a full view of a beating human heart!

Advanced VR training systems, complete with full hand gesture control and complex computer models, are now being used by intensivists and anaesthetists to simulate real-life resuscitation examples.

Pain management and rehabilitation

VR can also help with pain management, especially when medication doesn't do the trick. The University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory has developed SnowWorld, a VR game designed to change the perception of pain for burn patients undergoing bandage changes and wound cleaning. It can be an excruciatingly painful daily treatment, but the game draws a patient’s attention away from it by getting them to throw snowballs at penguins and woolly mammoths in an icy canyon.

Meanwhile, New Zealand's Health and Rehabilitation Research Institute, working in conjunction with Tarique Naseem from Carbon Imagineering, created a game called Submarine. Intended to help patients rebuild strength and function in their arms, they put their arms in slings loaded with sensors and haptic feedback devices. They then use arm motions to guide a virtual submarine through a basic assault course, translating their physical movements into control inputs.

"VR is beginning to find its place as a medium, with creators understanding where VR experiences can work well in offering a unique perspective, as well as where VR shouldn’t be employed," says Tarique.

What does VR mean for healthcare in the future?

It's a pretty hip time for VR in healthcare. Existing applications will continue to be developed and, of course, new apps are being created all the time. For example, the 3D Visualisation Aesthetics Lab at the University of New South Wales School of Art and Design is finding ways to visualise complex scientific and biomedical scan data using VR. As well as its educational benefits, it can be used to visualise cancer cells when designing new chemotherapy drugs.

Then there's the crossover between VR and robotics. 'Telesurgery' is usually conducted on-site, with doctors remotely controlling advanced surgical tools. But with VR and robotics, not to mention reliable, high-speed internet, expert surgeons could conduct life-altering and even life-saving procedures on patients anywhere in the world.

While these VR technologies are impressive, it's important to note that they are in the very early stages of development and can't fully replace traditional methods.

"Immersive training needs to sit within the context of a wider training strategy, which augments rather than replaces," says Tarique Naseem. "For instance, rather than focusing on a surgical tool or protocol, a VR training experience might seek to test a clinician's performance under stressful, noisy conditions rather than a sterile environment, or in richly enacted dialogue with patient characters."

When used appropriately, VR has huge potential to enhance healthcare in many ways – better-trained healthcare professionals, more immersive therapy, innovative drug designs and novel non-pharmacological treatments for pain.

VR will also provide tools for better communication between patients and healthcare professionals to improve patient and family involvement in care and self-management. VR's future in healthcare is bright, diverse and fully rendered in 3D. We can't wait to see what comes next.

*nib does not currently include VR treatment or therapy in any of our policies.

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