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May 27, 2021

Medical Training Applications for Virtual Reality

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the incredible skills and dedication of healthcare professionals in the face of unprecedented and challenging circumstances. But it has also highlighted our high expectations of clinicians’ ability to work to the highest of standards and without error in stressful and high risk situations. And to do this, ensuring healthcare professionals both now and in the future receive high levels of practical training, in addition to theoretical knowledge, is essential.

Paradoxically, although practice-based learning in the workplace is crucial to ensuring clinicians are fully able to work proficiently, practical training isn’t always a practical option. Immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality may just hold the key to this training conundrum. Indeed, the healthcare sector is blazing a trail in the adoption of virtual reality (VR) as an effective and impactful tool to support education and training.

A doctor is stood in a surgical room and wearing a virtual reality headset. He is in medical scrubs and holding controllers. A display is being projected from the controllers showing x-ray scans of a patient to visually represent what he is seeing inside the headset.
A representation of a doctor using a virtual reality headset during a surgical procedure.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality is a technology that allows a user to be completely immersed in an interactive computer generated environment. Innovative VR platforms such as Future Visual’s VISIONxR™ can accurately replicate real life scenarios and offer shared learning spaces where teams can interact and train together in a virtual working environment.

Users can access content by donning a headset and using motion controllers from hardware providers such as the Oculus Quest, HTC Vive and PSVR. These devices are becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, and this, coupled with the advances in VR platforms in creating realistic and collaborative spaces, is helping to make virtual reality a cost effective and attractive training tool.

Benefits of VR being used for healthcare training

When it comes to training, virtual reality’s superpower is its potential to offer risk free, but hands-on learning experiences. This is particularly crucial in the healthcare sector, where patient care skills, as well as highly technical and precise skills need to be perfected as mistakes could prove to be catastrophic. Additionally, it can help to prepare students for the daily realities and the challenges of their future workplace.

What’s more, there’s growing evidence to suggest that VR training works. In a study into a VR surgical training for repairing bone fractures, researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California found that medical students who were given VR training for the procedure completed it 20% faster and completed 38% more steps correctly than those in the traditionally trained group.

The advantages of adopting VR training include:

1) Keeping it real

For trainees and medical students, VR can give them the chance to get closer to the action. It can offer a truly accurate digital replication of a working environment, which they would otherwise have limited access to in the real world. Moreover, it can also help them to develop a sense of empathy and compassion, as well as an urgency to help a patient in a way that would be virtually impossible by classroom learning alone.

2) Addressing the need for broader surgical knowledge

Over the years, technological innovation and medical advances have led to improved surgical care. However, this has also increased the demands on surgeons’ knowledge; with some surgeons admitting to googling procedures or watching YouTube videos during an operation. Where a surgeon may have once needed to perform a task 10-20 times to reach the required proficiency level, as the complexity has increased, that number has grown to around 50-100 times. Virtual reality can provide surgeons with a space where they can practice procedures in a risk-free environment at a time and a pace that meets their needs.

3) Practicing to make perfect: making risk free mistakes

In the real healthcare world, human error can be potentially life threatening and career ending. But in the VR world, a mistake offers an opportunity to learn without any consequences. This means that trainees can make risk-free errors, learn from their mistakes, modify their actions and repeat procedures until they are perfected.

4) Preparing for the unpredictable

Healthcare professionals don’t just need skills to undertake medical procedures, they also need to be experts in dealing effectively with a variety of people and situations. Being confronted by aggressive, distressed or frightened patients and their families is a regular occurrence for clinicians, but practical training in these circumstances isn’t appropriate and theoretical classroom teaching can leave students completely unprepared to cope. 

This can be effectively addressed by VR experiences. Developing a range of different scenarios where the student’s actions and reactions drive the direction of the experience can help to prepare them for the realities of the workplace and build strategies to deal with difficult situations.   

5) Broadening knowledge around rare conditions

Our expectations on healthcare professionals skills are higher than ever, and this includes their ability to identify and treat rare conditions. But by its very nature, if a condition is rare, it is unlikely for a student or practitioner to come into contact with this during any work based learning experience. The beauty of virtual reality is that the possibilities are endless, so virtual patients with a range of symptoms can be created easily for scrutiny and assessment. Additionally, as experiences can be shared widely this learning can be easily scalable.

6) Effectively assessing competencies

A key benefit of virtual reality is its built in monitoring and evaluation systems. A user’s experience can be recorded and played back, so that they can learn from their own mistakes, as well as being used as an evaluation tool for their managers and tutors. What’s more, biometric data, for example from eye and body movements through to heart rates and temperature (and beyond) can also be gathered to help assess performance.

Practical applications of VR training

Virtual reality isn’t a technology of the future. It has already been adopted by innovators in healthcare as a tool to complement more traditional training activity.

Building surgical knowledge

Giving medical students the chance to observe surgery in situ is invaluable for their professional development. But it can also be challenging. Numbers of students who can be present are strictly limited and it can be distracting for the surgical team. Moreover, it can increase patient risk of infection. To address this issue, Sony Healthcare Solutions has worked with institutions from around the world, including the Hospital Clinic Barcelona, to provide students with a VR experience outside the operating room.

The experience includes 4K images in 3D and 2D from endoscopes, laparoscopic cameras, as well as other critical information. By accessing this experience, students can benefit from an increased amount of information, get closer to the action than would be practical in the operating room and be able to repeat the experience numerous times. Crucially, it’s also safer for the patient.

Honing precise technical skills

Virtual reality experiences benefit from their interactive nature, which can be invaluable for training surgeons to carry out intricate procedures. For example, Fundamental VR recently teamed up with NHS St George’s Hospital in London to produce an orthopaedic surgery VR experience to accelerate the learning curve of surgical training. Haptics are also deployed to accurately replicate the sense of touch, as trainees undertake every step of the procedure. Moreover, the experience accurately measures angles, depths and efficiency of movement, to allow trainees to build muscle memory as they practice.

Developing quick decision making skills

VR training can also be used by a range of healthcare professionals to make lightning quick decisions in the face of the rapid deterioration of a patient’s health. Academics and specialist nurses from Bournemouth University teamed up with Daden Ltd to develop a VR experience to teach student nurses how to treat a diabetic emergency. During the experience, a patient is admitted to hospital and then experiences hypoglycaemia. Their condition deteriorates and the student is given a number of choices of actions to take. Their decisions directly affect the patient’s outcome. 

This experience accurately reflects the actual workspace of the students by creating a digital twin of the wards and available equipment at Royal Bournemouth Hospital. It was also designed to blend seamlessly with traditional learning techniques, including lectures on the theory of hypoglycaemia to give a fully rounded training experience.

Is it time for VR training?

For a sector that relies on practical and repeated learning experiences to hone perfect skills, the Covid pandemic has brought significant challenges – and the adoption of VR training innovations have helped to address some of the issues that have arisen. 

In the short term, the NHS has faced the unprecedented challenges of an overwhelming number of patients needing critical care, the impact of a highly contagious virus on NHS staff health and a shortage of qualified practicing clinicians. As the NHS was tested like never before, the call to retired healthcare professionals to return to hospitals was crucial. And virtual reality training has played a vital role in helping to reskill around 15,000 retired returners and reassigned staff, to both refresh and expand their existing skillsets in the light of changing working conditions and the introduction of new technologies.    

Moreover, the medical profession relies on a constant stream of newly trained individuals to enter the profession. Since the Covid pandemic struck, training and education pipelines have been compromised by universities having to shut their doors and medical students being unable to access the hands-on experience they need to successfully complete their training. Again, virtual reality is being used to help to address these issues, allowing students to gain virtual hands-on experience that can be repeated, helping them to accelerate their learning of specific practical procedures. 

As with all times of crisis, innovation may be adopted to address an immediate need, but it can also provide a blueprint for the long term future of healthcare training. When blended with traditional classroom and work-based learning experiences, virtual reality training is a highly impactful, efficient and cost effective tool. And it can make a significant contribution to help safeguard the skills of our existing and future healthcare professionals, as well as ensuring that clinicians have the knowledge and abilities to be able to exploit the potential of medical innovations in the years to come.