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Virtual reality in medicine

Virtual reality in medicine – improving patient safety

Virtual reality could be a necessary supplement to solving the global medical professional shortage
The technology is available, the question is how will it be applied to make a difference in global medicine

The race for free and global digital access to information is over with the internet, mobile phones and Google Search addressing the issue of “just in time” problem solving through access to relevant literature, images, and video search results. However, if the ‘right answer’ is available anytime and anywhere to medical professionals then why are medical errors such as misdiagnoses, ‘botched’ surgeries and medication errors the third leading cause of death in the US as per a recent report in the British Medical Journal.1 Much of the data points to a lack of hands on professional experience in the workplace.

The new frontier of educational access to experience is helping solve the shortage of hands-on experience and training time constraints in the workplace leading to medical errors. This “freedom of experience” movement, sparked by low-cost virtual reality platforms (VR) like Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive, is now “virtually transporting” students to any potential scenario that training experts can dream up. Developing custom VR training experiences have created an entirely new industry for companies like VRTÜL, who are able to rapidly film or prototype immersive educational content for clinics, hospitals and healthcare professionals to allow studying and interaction in completely risk-free environments.

‘We are finding in our own studies on VR platforms that students are more engaged compared to traditional flat screen video. Additionally, years of scientific research says that people store virtual reality experiences in a different part of the brain than other types of media content, and by ‘tricking’ the brain into believing that event is actually happening deeper learning occurs which, therefore, leads to better learning outcomes,” said Casey Sapp, CEO of VRTÜL.

Figure 1: Casey Sapp (far left), CEO of VRTÜL, a San Diego based Virtual Reality (VR) studio and Ariel Ortiz (far right) are using VR technology to improve patient safety in surgery

Medical experts including Professor Ariel Ortiz, one of the leading bariatric surgeons in the world based at the Obesity Control Center in Tijuana, Mexico, sees virtual reality as a necessary supplement to solving the global medical professional shortage.

‘One of the hardest parts about training doctors and nurses is getting them into the operating room and into real training environments. Sometimes knowledge acquisition can only occur through shadowing or apprenticeship. Virtual reality helps solve the limitations of space and time to have doctors and nurses shadow me in ways technology has never been able to before,’ said Professor Ortiz.

Figure 2: Professor Ariel Ortiz is leading the application of VR technology to bariatric surgery

Many doctors like Professor Ortiz are partnering with specialized companies like VRTÜL to develop educational micro-lessons for distribution and broadcasting live surgical events utilizing these nascent learning platforms (Figure 2). Professional grade virtual reality cameras which capture video in 360 degrees, such as the Samsung Gear 360 for US$1,500 can quickly jump in cost to the GoPro Omni Rig at $5000 and the Nokia Ozo at US$60,000. The more expensive cameras come with better manual controls, dynamic ranges for low-light situations and stereoscopic filming which creates a 3D effect when viewing through a headset (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset manufactured by Oculus VR was the first consumer targeted VR headset and was released on March 28th, 2016

‘Filming in 360 degrees, setting up a camera in a live environment is fairly straightforward, but the quality of post-production is what separates the many emerging studios in the market. One day educational institutions will be able to ‘point, click, and share’ VR on their own like taking a picture with a smart phone today. For the next few years, there will be a lot of hands-on consultation and best practice refinement, for example, framing a shot correctly to minimize parallax. VR filming is a specialized craft for now.’  said Casey Sapp

Beyond 360 degree video, arguably the most mature VR technology, major name brands not in the medical industry like McDonalds are developing their own gaming demos on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift for distribution which allows customers to dynamically interact and organically engage their brand in new exciting ways. The higher end VR headsets also allow for social interaction, what some would consider the holy grail for distributed training and learning, like a ping pong demo released by Oculus.

‘For a surprisingly economical cost we are seeing educational experiences which players can use hand held controllers and haptics (physical touch) to pick up objects, problem solve, and simultaneously socialize with other VR players, participating for an indefinite period of time until they learn the skill or want to move on. With a basic understanding of Unity and animation, developers are quickly releasing some extremely simple but powerful experiences like ‘Job Simulator’ which you never forget once you’ve tried them’ said Matt Dejohn, VP of Production for VRTÜL. 

Access to meaningful experiences will help solve the issues of misdiagnosis and better treatment. The technology is available, the question is how will it be applied to make a difference in global medicine.

‘Human error is inevitable. But while we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences,’ said BMJ stu

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