Virtual reality is paving a new digital path in medicine. The latest iteration of VR technology has opened doors for medical training and education, creating new methods for the practice makes perfect mantra.
Instead of relying on cadavers, mannequins, simulated labs and actors, a VR headset can place medical students in a in a virtual operating room or lab, complete with the toolset and staff necessary for the current task. And with room-scale technology, students can physically walk around the space while receiving realistic haptic feedback against their hands.
This work is being done by companies like AiSolve, a UK-based company that specializes in VR. In conjunction with Oculus, Bioflight and the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, AiSolve developed a program to help train clinicians in pediatric trauma cases.
“[These companies] came together to deliver a VR simulation project creating more cost-effective, realistic and reliable training of real-life trauma situations,” said AiSolve CEO Devi Kolli on the company website.
Kolli and her team used real case studies provided by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles doctors to craft scenarios in their AI powered virtual world.
VR can also provide students and doctors alike with a new perspective on the human body by either blowing up the organs to human size, or shrinking people down to the molecular level.
One troubled patient in California born was with a heart defect that left 2-D images inadequate for doctors when she needed a new heart valve later in life. In a joint program between the Adult Congenital Heart Program, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Health Care, surgeon Katsuhide Maeda used CT scans to create 3-D models of the patient’s heart, lungs and chest cavity. From there, the team of doctors were able to routinely check the models in VR, analyzing them from new angles. This work helped lead to a successful operation in December 2016.
“When you print an anatomical model, you can cut it open once and that’s it,” said pediatric radiologist Frandics Chan to Stanford Medical. “In virtual reality, you can put it back together, cut it again in a different place and magnify it with the flick of your hand.”
This technology can even lead people into new perspectives on others, creating something called the Proteus Effect, or the idea that our behavior within a virtual world changes based on the visual characteristics of the avatar. A group of Stanford researchers showed in one study how the feeling of being a cow made the subjects more connected with animals, and a separate study showed how people will taller avatars acted more confidently. This could be utilized to put medical students in the position of patients, family members, in a busy ER and more to build their toolset to cope in those scenarios later.
Several companies and universities are already working on patient empathy simulators, and alongside many more applications for VR in the medical arena.