You may have heard the term, virtual reality (VR), floating around in the world of video games. You may have read articles about how this technology is used in training pilots before they take control of actual planes. Well, what if that same technology was used in medicine? This idea no longer exists only in the minds of science fiction writers. A couple of years ago, an oncology doctor in London was the first to do just that. We now have entered the age where virtual reality can be used for a multitude of purposes in surgery.
With virtual reality in the operating room, anyone can participate in a surgical procedure in real time. May it be surgical students, other doctors offering guidance for complicated procedures, concerned or merely interested family and friends, or the patient himself. With the use of specialized 360-degree cameras, anyone can bear witness to all of the surgery’s sights and sounds as though they were in the room. It may even become an option in the future for the non-squeamish to participate in their own surgery as a spectator. Mothers may even have the opportunity to witness the births of their children from the same perspective as their partners.
The first time a virtual reality camera was used in surgery was in April 2016. Dr. Shafi Ahmed, an oncology surgeon, removed cancerous tissue from a patient at the Royal London Hospital. This was the world's first operation to be streamed live using 360 degree VR cameras, with a one minute delay applied, in case of any complications. Spectators were able to connect online or via an app, where they could control their own 360 views. Those viewing this particular live stream watched as a fleshy mass was pulled from the patient, the surgery had been a success. Had there been any complications, the surgical team would have cut the feed.
It’s easy to see how this technology has the potential to elevate medical training. Currently, only a handful of students can peek over the shoulders of a surgeon at work. Now students can log in from anywhere in the world and take part in real surgeries, from a classroom or even the comfort of their own homes. Unlike some current training methods which use digital renderings of the body, in the case of VR, the body is always real. Students will be exposed to not just the body of the patient but to all the sights and sounds that accompany an actual surgery.
Not only is this an incredible learning tool, but it is also extremely cost-efficient. Students need only a cell phone or laptop to watch but also have the option to use VR goggles for a more immersive experience. There are some limitations which are not present in the traditional OR setting. Although you can log in from anywhere for a 360 degree view of the room, you are unable to move the cameras for a better look in case of an obstruction. It is the hope of those who see potential in this technology to improve upon it in a way that makes virtual reality and reality nearly seamless.