Medical education has undergone many transformations to keep up with the changing technology and practice trends. Unlike many other branches of science, medical training hugely relies on clinical and hands-on experience apart from the usual heavy loads of textbooks and assignments. Innovations in digital technology have made it possible for medical students to work on virtual and augmented platforms before actually laying hands on the patients.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are two techniques that are revolutionizing medical training as it enhances the clinician’s ability to see, touch and understand the anatomical area much better than ever before. The 3D artificial world constructed by VR immerses the user into the virtual environment and enables realistic user interaction. It combines haptics, force-feedback capabilities, high-fi audio-visual effects, motion detection sensors, and a pepped-up processing power to help training in interventional and hands-on procedures. Hence, VR is gaining popularity for teaching and learning surgical procedures, simulating surgery, and planning various steps in the surgery.
On the other hand, AR works by superimposing computer-generated images onto those of the real-life images or body parts of the patient. This has changed the way doctors and students can visualize the human body and its complexities and so there is an increased demand for AR in medical education. 3D visualization of anatomical structures that are otherwise difficult to understand in anatomy is one primary AR use. Another area of great interest is the 4D representation of the various physiological phenomenon. For both these techniques, customization of the setting can suit the learners' needs. Its cost-effectiveness and extensiveness is also an added advantage.
There are startups engaged in medical simulation. One such company is Augmented Intelligence that creates educational materials using AR and VR for physicians and medical students. Complicated anatomical details of the human body and surgical procedures can be learned using the Augmented Intelligence’s Body Map program. For example, The Chang Gung Proton Therapy Center uses this tool and AI-generated algorithm to identify the patient's correct lying position for the administration of proton therapy in the treatment of cancer.
Another startup for surgical planning, training, and education using VR solutions is Immersive Touch. Its platform for surgical planning called ImmersiveView permits surgeons to communicate with their team using 3D replicas generated from the patients’ scans. Various surgical moves that represent a real procedure are possible. Many premier institutes such as Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, and University of Texas hospitals are all using this platform to train their surgeons.
Augmedics introduced “the first augmented reality guidance system for surgery” called Xvision. It superimposes a 3D image that acts as an “Xray” vision to help surgeons visualize anatomical areas beneath the skin and tissue. 98.9% accuracy was reported when surgeons inserted spinal screws in cadavers using the VR headset. Surgical Theater offers a platform for neurosurgeons to rehearse their procedures to plan the operative better. Moreover, this also provides VR simulations to patients about the surgical procedure they are about to undergo.
Echo-pixel has an AR platform known as True3D gives students the flexibility to visualize and interact with the organs and medical images of their patients. A similar startup is Medivis that helps medical students in learning anatomical structures in detail. Health Scholars offers VR training in life-saving emergency care training for adult and pediatric scenarios using AI-enabled VR practice. This platform is known to present a very authentic training experience. SentiAR is a startup that AR creates a holographic visualization of a patient's internal organs so that the augmented image floats over the actual organ during interventional procedures to guide students.
The increased application of VR and AR in training medical students and doctors will also increase challenges. Practical issues such as diminishing face-to-face interaction between students and instructor, need to change the curriculum, cost factors, learner's easy-going attitude, and challenges associated with side effects, design, and safety issues privacy of data, and instrument validation of VR do exist. Other barriers include access to 5G networks and the availability of 5G-enabled devices. Prolonged exposure to VR systems is known to cause common side effects such as cybersickness, simulation sickness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, eye fatigue, ataxia, and eye strain in some.
AR and VR have made medical training enthralling and is helping inquisitive minds learn the subject better. The medical simulation gives students practical knowledge and on-hand experience while ensuring patient safety. Moreover, the medical student's interactive and immersive experience helps in handling clinical cases with efficiency.
There is a massive market for these contemporary simulation techniques, as Allied Market Research speculates it to reach $2.4 billion by 2026. This is due to AR/VR's significant demand for extended applications such as pain management, dementia, and medical/surgical training.
Advancements and innovations in hardware and software will further reduce AR/VR costs while it will continue to improve user experience in a huge way. There is a need for progressive healthcare providers to further examine these systems' potential applicability and advantages. We’re at the beginning of a new era of learning in healthcare, and shortly, AR/VR will bring many more significant developments in healthcare training, communication, and improving patient-based outcomes that the human mind can’t comprehend today!