How virtual reality (VR) is helping doctors and nurses save lives

How virtual reality (VR) is helping doctors and nurses save lives

Virtual reality (VR) has long left the realm of gamers or thrill-seekers and has positioned itself at the forefront of medical research and practice.

Doctors, nurses – and even patients – are being aided in a myriad of ways by the cutting-edge technology that has been pushing its own boundaries since the first flight simulator in the 1920s.

Since the first heavy head-mounted displays in the 60s, VR technology has been inching toward making the hardware accessible, and the virtual as real as possible.

While gaming and home uses are still the holy grail of major companies, and debate rages about who is best pushing the hardware and software to meet the hype and expectation, VR application in medical training, in diagnosis and in treatment has been gaining ground.

Researchers, surgeons and doctors in hospitals across the UK and internationally are exploring, with many successes, this brave new world.

In April 2016, in an operating theatre first, cancer surgeon Shafi Ahmed performed an operation using a virtual reality camera at the Royal London Hospital. Through the Medical Realities website and an app, others (other surgeons, trainee surgeons, for example) could participate in the operation.

Virtual reality technology is increasingly being used to aid teaching, practise operations, and give students and patients virtual operating room and hospital experiences.

The immersive, realistic experience is proving to be much more effective than traditional video or standing in a crowded, busy operating theatre to watch.

When Dr. Ahmed conducted his virtual operation, he used Microsoft’s HoloLens (headset) to virtually bring together surgeons from across the world.

Three surgeons wore headsets to appear live in an operating theatre where Dr. Ahmed was removing a bowel cancer. They could see each other as avatars, moving and speaking in the room, and each could contribute their expertise.

Over the past four years, hospitals across the UK have been looking to VR to improve training for medical professionals.

There are now more than 20 specialist simulation centres across the UK, similar to Imperial College London’s centre for engagement and simulation science where Professor Roger Kneebone has pioneered the field for 15 years.

The virtual experience goes beyond training for medics or assisting surgeons and is also being used to improve the patient’s experience of the hospital.

At St Mary’s Hospital in London, a new patient hub allows people to experience an operating theatre and even what some treatments will feel like prior to their admittance.

Prof Kneebone said it “demystifies” the procedure and allows a patient to get used to it so they can arrive feeling more relaxed.

It also allows doctors and nurses to improve their systems for the patient.

Since these surgeries captured the attention of medics, technologists and the watching world, the future of VR in a medical environment seems assured.

London start-up Touch Surgery is developing holographic surgery headsets and has raised £15 million from San Francisco firm 8VC, the backers of Facebook’s Oculus headset, to develop an augmented reality surgery-training tool.

The idea is, by wearing a Microsoft HoloLens headset, medics would see a live feed of a surgeon performing an operation overlaid with virtual guides on how the surgery is being done.

It seems virtual reality, used in a vast array of medical settings, is progressing rapidly.

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