Implementing Virtual Reality in Medicine and Medical Training

by Rina Karnaukh

Virtual reality (VR) and its cousin, augmented reality (AR), are emerging in the healthcare field as a high-tech solution for improving medical education. Medical staff are continually learning throughout their lifetime of work. Today, with medical tools undergoing revolutionary upgrades faster than ever before, it is critical for these professionals to stay up to date with innovations. If ignored, that growing gap in knowledge hampers their ability to provide proper services to their patients.

This is where AR/VR applications are expected to be most beneficial. Using virtual reality for medical training has great potential. Will it replace traditional training soon, or is this only wishful thinking?

Why Use VR for Medical Training?

Modern VR training, although widely regarded as beneficial for education, is still somewhere between excitement and skepticism. It is easy to understand the latter, since many medical professionals were trained using traditional methods and are more comfortable with these methods despite their limitations. Others point at successful implementations of VR in the cultural field. For example, it’s now possible for an entire class of students to visit the Louvre from anywhere in the world or to go on a virtual ‘field trip’ inside the human body. What was once considered impossible has now become possible in our virtual world.

The advances of VR in learning and training allow students and specialists to train in a more enjoyable and engaging way. New skills are acquired and honed through practice in interactive and safe virtual environments. Students don’t even require an instructor because instructions and tips are built inside the VR app. However, students’ performance in this virtual world still needs to be analyzed and evaluated by a specialist.

Medical schools can benefit from adopting augmented and virtual reality for medical training programs. For example, VR simulations allow for exploring the human body without endangering patients. A scarcity of subjects to practice on can often result in a situation where students could only practice once or twice before needing to perform a real surgical procedure. Virtual environments provide students with the valuable ability to explore, make mistakes, and learn from them. In addition, students can repeat these procedures multiple times and that’s difficult to accommodate in a traditional school of medicine.

VR medical training doesn’t replace traditional training, but it provides an important edge. It can present sophisticated concepts through visualization and interaction and provide a valuable view of real-world experiences. This makes tasks easier to grasp and creates a level of interest that textbooks or tests struggle to do.

VR helps keep medical training formalized, ensuring a stable level of performance quality, while establishing standardized skills set for medical specialists.

AR/VR can be useful for training nurses and surgeons too. They need to be prepared to resolve various practical and ethical dilemmas in their work. Through simulation, VR platforms can bring unique learning opportunities, such as rehearsing complex surgeries, delivering hard news, and other scenarios commonly encountered in a hospital. Therefore, specialists can be better prepared to face complex and dynamic medical situations. 

VR training can also be useful for paramedics. These professionals work in an environment where pressure can be extremely high. If their first encounter with harsh situations happens in the real world, it can be overwhelming and stressful. Virtual environments enable them to learn both procedures and self-control.

VR technology may help improve the quality of healthcare services. For example, VR headsets are already used in some children’s hospitals to distract children during unpleasant procedures, such as blood sampling.

Another application of virtual reality in medicine relates to virtual simulations of how patients with mental health disorders see and experience the world. It is a great help for psychiatric centers’ staff and possibly the patients’ relatives. Research and studies are not always capable of providing such vivid insights into what is happening in someone’s mind.

Even medical device makers benefit from virtual environments. Instead of personally giving instructions or demonstrations to every specialist that might be interested, they use VR to present their products. Although VR devices can be costly, each year companies are making this technology available to the wider audience by producing simpler headsets such as Oculus Go. The price points for these new devices are often cheaper than sending representatives to meet in person with clients.

AR Is Also Suitable For Medical Training

Augmented reality may be not as engaging as VR but can still yield very good results. The advantages of AR for medical training are:

  1. Students don’t need a VR helmet. They can hold a tablet over a manikin to superimpose simulated internal organs or a hologram of a patient on it. With AR, medical students and doctors can learn and practice anywhere, even at home, which promotes continuous improvement.
  2. AR is not fully immersive, so it can combine real and virtual medical devices. For example, when students learn to read ultrasound images, AR would add layers with images of underlying tissue, blood vessels, nerves, muscles, and bones on the real ultrasound image. 
  3. Because AR is not fully immersive, it also makes teamwork possible. Team members can interact with one another and with the instructor.

Is VR What Medical Training Needs?

Medical and especially surgical landscapes are evolving rapidly, and there is plenty of space for exploring new and experimental ways of training. VR and AR have great potential in the field. As they become more refined and accessible, the case for incorporating this technology into training programs seems to make sense. Or does it? 

It is understandable why some don’t believe that VR technology can be useful based upon the traditional training they received; i.e. cadavers or live patients. While cadavers will continue to be of use, training on live patients is dangerous and greatly pressures young trainees. Some specialists also note that VR and AR are not very realistic in simulating individual features of human bodies. For example, knee joints differ in each patient. Objects and tools in the virtual world do not have weight and therefore create less than realistic user experiences.   

Despite these limitations, VR medical training is expected to transform medical education. Both AR/VR applications already help in better understanding the anatomy of the human body and the steps of various medical procedures. They empower students to apply knowledge and practice skills until they are mastered. Virtual environments allowing medical and interprofessional training to be conducted more easily will be hard to ignore.

VR technology has a long road ahead to become fully integrated with current curricula, but it is reasonable to predict that one day it will be common. If you have innovative ideas on AR or VR for medical training or other fields, Alternative-spaces team is here to help. Let’s pave the path for the future together today.

Content created by our partner, Onix-systems.

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