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VR medical
training: Virtual
reality and
the future of
surgical training

Author: Megan Williams

Virtual reality medical training, or VR medical training, for surgeons is far from new. But the COVID-19 pandemic may have launched a new phase of surgical skill development—one that could make the most of VR technology and provide surgeons, both new and experienced, with fresh avenues to increase their skills and potentially improve outcomes for their patients.

As this technology continues to develop, hospital residency programs may see increasing demands for and benefits from providing groundbreaking educational methods, including staying competitive and attracting the talent that will shape the future of their institution. To realize these benefits, it's critical to understand the forces that are shaping VR medical training and VR surgical training today and where they're headed in the future.

Surgeon training before VR

Before VR, surgical students primarily used box trainers, but still faced multiple hurdles and inconveniences.

Surgeons have historically faced a lack of opportunities for consistent practice of the skills they're acquiring, especially related to new medical technologies, according to Harvard Business Review. For example, when they need training on a new device, surgeons often have to travel to a one- to two-day training workshop hosted by the medical device company. Afterward, they're likely left without options to continue reinforcing their skills—months can pass between the time a surgeon trains and their first procedure on a patient. Additionally, patient anatomy can vary from what surgeons experience in traditional training scenarios.

But robotics have also emerged in the field with significant impact, according to the American College of Surgeons. This form of computer-integrated surgery can help provide additional information that might not be available through the human senses. VR and augmented reality (AR) have already been incorporated into these scenarios. For example, robotic visualization can overlay a reconstructed tomography scan of a tumor over the operating site.

What VR medical training looks like today

VR is used in multiple ways to shape tomorrow's surgeons and boost the skills of practicing surgeons, according to ScienceSoft. This, of course, includes surgery simulations in an operating room (OR) environment that supports the acquisition of practical skills and allows surgeons to raise their competence in the safest environment possible.

Beyond that, though, VR medical training can be used in crisis simulations to reconstruct scenarios like disease outbreaks, multiple casualty accidents and rare emergencies, helping experts develop responses to low-frequency situations that might not be practical to replicate through more traditional methods.

Thanks to VR and AR applications, surgeons can practice more to build muscle memory and confidence, according to HealthTech. This is especially important for laparoscopic and robotic surgery techniques that push them to master new and precise skill sets.

How COVID-19 has propelled the need for contactless training

Surgical environments have seen multiple changes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased benefits of surgical robots, which serve as a shield, separating healthcare workers from patients and slowing the spread of pathogens, as reported in Nature. The same is true for VR medical training.

Overall, the pandemic has put surgical training at risk, with multiple specialties reporting major disruptions to all aspects of training. Conferences and hands-on courses have seen the most significant issues, but even inpatient care-related training has been disrupted, with 44% of respondents in this global cross-sectional survey reporting major disruption.

In the U.S. specifically, surgical training has been significantly impacted and the long-term effects are still unknown.

Understanding the costs and benefits of AR/VR surgical training

There is a potential financial impact of incorporating AR/VR medical training and AR/VR surgical training into your organization's residency programs. While VR simulations can help significantly reduce the time it takes for novices to attain surgical proficiency, they can also cost over $100,000—which is why there are efforts to create low-cost simulations. Many organizations may find that, over time, the benefits of VR surgical training will outweigh the costs, according to Surgical Science.

For surgeons

For surgeons improving their skills, VR medical training offers the ability to practice an entire surgical procedure on real medical equipment, such as an appendectomy, step by step, giving residents a feel for what they'll experience in actual surgery. VR surgical training can also offer near real-time corrective feedback and the ability to practice an entire surgical procedure. For example, VR technology can send alerts when one hand is drifting or if movements aren't efficient—something box trainers can't offer.

For surgical departments

Trainers can access objective data to assess skills competence, such as how many times each student has practiced basic knot-tying skills. This yields precise data on training trajectory and establishes a better-informed basis for evaluation. VR simulations can also provide checklist-style assessment measures that reduce the effects of human subjectivity, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Organizations will also likely see a minimization of training costs due to less need for trainers and lower learning curves.

For patients

Patients are also, overall, presented with higher quality surgical experiences. A study by the University of Michigan found that 30% of surgeons couldn't operate independently post-residency. Another study out of the New England Journal of Medicine found that lower-skilled bariatric surgeons exhibited mortality rates five times higher than higher-skilled surgeons. VR medical training and VR surgical training could open extensive possibilities for extra practice, which may reduce these statistics in future generations.

As the future of VR surgical training and VR medical training continues to emerge, Verizon is proud to enable our partners as they continue on their journey through surgical innovation. Discover how mixed reality solutions can help save lives.