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Could VR Change How Healthcare Providers Learn?

Could VR Change How Healthcare Providers Learn?

Augmented reality and virtual reality allow medical schools and hospitals to simulate real-world situations and teach future doctors in ways a traditional textbook or screen-based modules can’t.

A preteen boy lies on a hospital bed with blush-red hives covering most of his upper body.

He’s going into anaphylactic shock and a team of ER doctors and nurses are racing to save his life. There are a host of tools they can use — IV or airway and code carts filled with vials of medication, including dopamine and epinephrine. The atmosphere of the room is hectic, but all the while medical staff calmly provide the lifesaving care the boy needs.

Every day, doctors must make real-time decisions that could mean life or death for their patients. The scenario above likely could happen in any hospital across the country, but in this case, it wasn’t real.

It was a virtual reality experience.

Last year, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) partnered with the VR company Oculus to create a VR-driven training simulation for medical students and staff. The simulation puts doctors in a hospital room where they must provide intensive care for a high-risk pediatric trauma patient and make quick decisions about the best course of treatment. The tool allows medical students to train in an environment where the stakes aren’t as high, but where the scenario still feels authentic enough that it prepares them for these future real-world situations.

The CHLA virtual reality experience is just one example of how emerging technology is transforming medical training. Medical training has traditionally included cadavers, screen-based modules, videos, and surgical observation to help medical interns and residents build their skills. But now, thanks to virtual reality and augmented reality (AR), budding doctors can have a real-world experience in a situation that is less high-pressured.

Medical education is undergoing a digital transformation. A growing number of hospitals and medical schools are using virtual reality to train the country’s future generation of doctors and to prepare doctors for surgery. For all the consumer hype about VR and AR — an industry that is expected to grow to $150 billion by 2020 — it could have an even bigger impact in the healthcare space.

“We’re really only scratching the surface,” says Judy Lin, healthcare strategic accounts marketing manager at Adobe. “These technologies will continue to evolve and more and more capabilities will come from them.”

AR and VR allow medical schools and hospitals to simulate real-world situations and teach future doctors in ways a traditional textbook or screen-based modules can’t. They are changing how healthcare providers learn — and this could have important implications for patient care and their health outcome.

Medical training’s digital transformation.

The VR experience at CHLA shows how the technology can be used to simulate emergency room situations, but it also can impact surgical planning.

Stanford Medicine is combining VR MRI imaging, CT scans and angiograms to create life-like, 3D models that patients, medical residents, and doctors can view to learn more about the brain.

Medical residents and doctors can put on a VR headset to get a more detailed look at a patient’s brain before surgery, pinpointing the exact location of a ballooning blood vessel and where a clip should be surgically inserted to perform the repair. Patients also can see the image, which helps them better understand their surgery and possibly reduce their anxiety before the procedure.

“VR provides another way of articulating or presenting health information that a doctor would typically share with his or her patients,” says Tom Swanson, head of healthcare industry strategy and marketing at Adobe.

Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is planning to scrap traditional cadaver labs for virtual ones when the university opens its new health education campus with the Cleveland Clinic in 2019. The school will use AR, which will layer a 3D image on top of what students see in the real world, to help them learn more about the body’s anatomy. The approach will improve medical training and address some of the logistic challenges and environmental concerns with using cadavers, like not having enough cadavers for each student and avoiding the use of harsh chemicals to preserve the bodies.

“In traditional medical classrooms, you practice on cadavers or animals, but there are tremendous real-time benefits to being able to do all that through VR or AR, where it’s very measurable as well,” Tom says.  

AR and VR can be critical for preparing doctors to perform risky, yet life-saving procedures like intubation, catheter replacement, and cricothyrotomy (making an incision into part of the neck and inserting a tube into the trachea). The naked human eye can only see so much, but these technologies provide a microscopic level of detail that enables doctors to get a much better view of their surgical field and allow medical students to better understand a patient’s case and subsequent treatment.

Though some hospitals and medical schools are integrating AR and VR into medical training and into how they provide care, there could be a few obstacles before we see more widespread adoption of these technologies.

“The main challenges are cost, trust, and tradition,” Tom says. “ In the medical field, there’s just a way things have always been done. It’s similar to what we saw when robotic surgery started to become more common. People were skeptical about surgical robots, saying that they replaced doctors, but the doctor was actually behind the controls. It just allowed them to operate in a finer environment. It’s the same benefit with these technologies.”

Another challenge is that the hardware that tech companies use to create AR and VR experiences isn’t that consumer-friendly.

“Right now, the headsets are still relatively clunky. What we’re seeing is not as clear or as sharp as it can be,” Judy says. “Until it gets to that point, I don’t think you’ll see these experiences become as commonplace in healthcare as everyone would like them to be.”

Still, as more medical schools and hospitals figure out how to incorporate AR and VR into medical training, it could lead to more highly skilled and prepared healthcare providers — and that ultimately will benefit patients. But, as Tom says, these technologies will complement the doctor-patient relationship, not entirely replace it.

“When it comes down to actual delivery of medical care, you’re always going to have to be present, whether it’s in a hospital or an office,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a downside to the technology, because it’s all just a matter of providing yet another channel for a patient to engage with their doctor.”

Read more about the future of virtual reality in our Beyond the Screen collection.

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