After a first deep cut the surgeon swaps his scalpel for an odd pen-shaped device. Nurses swab emerging blood before he carefully applies the pen, tissue exploding into vapour.
But there’s no smell of burned flesh, no shiver in the sterile cold of the dreary OR . Instead I sit in a chair, watching the procedure from the comfort of my own home.
In April 2016 the UK was the first country to stream an operation using 360-degree cameras. Through an app, a headset, and their smartphones, the world could watch live as doctors removed cancerous tissue from a patient’s bowel.
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While videos of operations have been around for a long time, the Virtual Reality approach makes healthcare more equitable, improving the training of surgeons worldwide.
Dr. Alan Bagnall and his team at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne belong to the pioneers using three-dimensional story-telling to prepare medics for the real thing.
“You want to be taught in a way that doesn’t put patients at risk”, he said.
“If I am teaching someone how to put a tube into an artery and get it wrong, a real person is going to be in pain or worse.”
Bagnall shows me a machine with two screens, a bunch of wires, and a full body mannequin. He introduced the sophisticated Swedish simulators in Newcastle to allow cardiologists, radiologists, and vascular surgeons in the making to immerse in realistic, every-day emergency scenarios.
With software drawing from real-life cases, even first year students get the opportunity to practise core skills to react to surgery complications without harming an actual patient.
“We don’t want their learning curve on patients”, Bagnall said.
“The technology is used to ease the transition from training to the clinical environment.”
The very authenticity, the haptic, and the sound that make Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality applications fun gimmicks have long helped to improve medicine in all areas.
Pediatric cardiologists stand in front of a library of heart defects, take aim and press the VR trigger to pull a workable 3D model. Vascular surgeons display a map of their patient’s blood vessels on their skin through AR. Neurosurgeons submerge into their patient’s brain to have a closer look before operating.
And this is only a small extract from the plethora of new disruptive technologies in the surgical armamentarium.
VR is also becoming a powerful tool in psychology. Using technology alongside therapy now allows conditions like phobias, pain management, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder to be treated.
In a world of diminishing NHS resources, Virtual Reality can be a money saver, too – technology that is not just available, and accessible but affordable.
“Because of its advantages VR should be a no-brainer for doctors and hospitals”, Bagnall said. However, its huge potential comes with great responsibility.
“There are also a number of limitations and legal pitfalls, the most dangerous of which certainly is data misuse.”
Nonetheless, the technology used to thrill virtual racing drivers or shoot marauding Vikings is now saving lives for good measure.