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A round-up of emerging ways that virtual reality is reshaping remote surgery.
Using virtual reality technology in surgery sounds like something that’s out of a sci-fi novel, but that reality is a lot closer than you might think. Read on for some of the ways that VR is going to be used in the OR — or already is.
Virtual reality offers new possibilities for planning surgeries. Doctors can now plan heart surgeries without lifting a scalpel. Using CT scans, doctors at Stanford’s Lucile Packard’s Children Hospital were able to create a 3D model of a patient’s heart, and use VR to examine new angles before surgery. By seeing what they might expect from potentially risky surgeries before they have to make an incision, surgeon are more prepared for the procedure, and patients are safer.
After a stroke, doctors often implant a device in the brain to stem the bleeding and prevent clotting in a small pocket of the blood vessel. Sizing this device is vital: if it’s too small, it won’t stop the bleeding, and if it’s too large, it won’t fit. That’s where VR comes in. Instead of using 2D images to guess at a size, physicians at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center can now create a 3D model to more accurately learn how large the device needs to be.
Another use for VR technology is the possibility of “remote surgery” with one surgeon performing a procedure with specialists from around the world watching in virtual reality and offering assistance. This technology allows for a more immersive experience for the remote physicians. This paired with tiny cameras worn by the operating surgeon would let remote specialists “see” everything happening in the surgery.
For example, last October, Dr. Shafi Ahmed, a colorectal surgeon based in London, performed a procedure with four surgeons from across the world: two others in London, one in Mumbai, and one in the US. Using a combination of augmented reality and VR technology that provided a 3D model of the patient's body, the surgeons interacted in real-time with each other to provide Dr. Ahmed with guidance to help him perform the surgery. They were even able to integrate with an app that gave the participants 3D avatars. “[We] could 'see' each other moving as graphic avatars, standing, and speaking as if we were together in the same hospital operating theatre," Ahmed said in a statement.
Virtual reality offers new options for training future surgeons. Instead of relying on cadavers, some universities are offering the chance to practice operations in virtual reality. In the future, this training might even include haptic feedback, giving surgeons the experience of what a real body would feel like. This technology would residents and surgeons learn and practice without worrying about a real patient.
Dr. Shafi Ahmed also wants to use the technology to train future surgeons remotely. Having performed operations broadcast around the world with virtual reality, Ahmed is interested in other possibilities for educating surgeons across the globe with this technology. Aside from training surgeons in other countries that might not be able to travel for medical school, VR could provide up-close immersive streams to residents observing surgery at their own universities.
There are many ways VR can be used to make surgery safer and less stressful for patients too. Surgeons can use the virtual reality technology that helps them plan surgery and walk their patients through their procedure so they can understand what will happen in the operating room.
VR can also help with pain management. Dr. José Luis Mosso Vazquez is using a VR headset during surgery, using a local anesthetic and relying on the VR technology to relax and distract the patients from the surgery. This can help especially in rural communities, where the cost and logistics of full sedation can be prohibitive. It really works: the blood pressure of patients drops as they immerse themselves in digital worlds. Dentists are doing something similar already; a study found that patients exposed to a VR beach experienced less pain during procedures.
Finally, VR might allow for the exciting possibility of remote surgery, using robots to perform operations from miles away. This technology is still in development, but it could allow surgeons to use robot and virtual reality technology to operate remotely on critically injured soldiers without being on the front lines. This “Trauma Pod” project is still in development, but this future might not be as far away as some think: one Canadian surgeon has used already used a robot to operate remotely on over 20 patients.