Saving lives with mixed reality
Surgeons operating under a different reality
Before they grab a scalpel, clamp or forceps, surgeons will increasingly reach for their virtual reality headsets as they head into the operating room. Today, in a growing number of hospitals, surgeons can rehearse a patient’s operation on an exact 3D model of his or her anatomy before the operation begins. The surgeon basically runs through the procedure in virtual reality before actually operating on the patient’s body. By doing so, the doctor can test and refine surgical techniques, learn the nuances of the patient’s unique anatomy, and anticipate difficulties that may arise during the operation.
In such a scenario, the surgeon goes into surgery feeling prepared and confident – and the patient goes in feeling reassured and more confident.
Virtual Reality (VR) has begun to transform medicine in profound ways. VR solutions are being used in medical schools to train doctors and in hospitals to plan and practice operations. One day soon they will likely be used in operating rooms during operations as well, to help improve surgery on actual patients. Augmented Reality (AR) is also creating breakthroughs in surgical operations.
In some medical schools, students now study anatomy on virtual cadavers and learn surgical skills on virtual patients. Increasingly hospitals use VR technology to convert a patient’s CT or MRI scan into a 3D virtual reality model that a surgeon can interact with and practice on.
“Prior to surgery, the surgeon can learn a patient’s anatomy inside and out, plan his mission, and rehearse the operation so that he performs more efficiently and with greater accuracy and precision,” says Jay Banerjee, president and CEO of ImmersiveTouch, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality medical technologies. “Virtual reality also lets surgeons work faster – so it saves time in the operating room, saves anesthesia and reduces radiation exposure.”
With the ImmersiveTouch platform, a surgeon wears a VR headset in order to visualize, study and interact with the patient’s anatomy. The technology features tools that let the surgeon rotate, measure, cut and draw on the 3D model in virtual reality.
Clinical studies show VR solutions reduce risks and improve patient outcomes, Banerjee says. “It’s like a flight simulator,” he explains. Just like pilots use simulators to practice flying in specific conditions, surgeons use virtual reality to simulate the exact circumstances of an operation they’re about to perform. “Using VR, a surgeon can fly into a patient and see things in great detail so he’ll know exactly what to expect once he opens the patient up,” Banerjee says.
Dr. Shafi Ahmed, a colorectal surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, is a pioneer in using virtual reality for medical education. In 2016, he broadcast the first live surgery in virtual reality to viewers around the world so they could feel as if they were actually in the operating room as the procedure was performed. Since then, Dr. Ahmed continues to innovate ways to apply virtual reality to medical training, having performed live operations on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
“I firmly believe that the way we teach the next generation of doctors must radically change,” Dr. Ahmed says. “With virtual reality, we can share knowledge on a global level and also make learning more exciting and interactive.”
Thanks to many of the advancements 5G will bring, augmented reality (AR) – a form of virtual reality – will have a place in the operating room, on patients, during surgery. Unlike virtual reality, which fully immerses the user in a simulated environment, augmented reality overlays digital information and virtual objects on the real world environment.
During surgery, a doctor will be able to use an AR headset to view critical clinical data superimposed directly onto the patient. “For example, if you’re doing spine surgery, you can pick up the image from the CT or MRI scan and place it on top of the body so it makes your operation much more precise,” Dr. Ahmed says. Using AR, the surgeon would be able to make a more exact incision and put screws in more accurately because he would be guided by the overlaid data.
In January 2019, Dr. Christopher Morley of Medivis spoke on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show about how 5G will impact medical science and illustrated how Medivis is working to use AR in the operating room.
As medical institutions increasingly embrace virtual reality, its future in medicine seems all but certain. “Just as a CT or MRI scanner used to be a luxury, now you can’t have a hospital without one. In the future, the same will go for VR,” Banerjee says.
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