VR in Medical Training: A Win or A Whim?

By Inga Shugalo, Healthcare Industry Analyst, Itransition
Twitter: @itransition

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are steadily paving their way in the most conservative fields of activity – finance, manufacturing, and even healthcare have become devoted users of these technologies. According to Technavio, the use of VR in higher education is growing at a CAGR of 52%, with medical education extending its application. So is VR really beneficial for medical education, or is it just a fad? We’ll look into the matter.

VR in medical education: top benefits
VR in medical training offers a range of benefits that can’t be ignored. We will explore the top 5 in detail.

Engaging the learners
Traditional training methods in medicine are far from being innovative. As a rule, students are trained on donated or acquired cadavers, which are not numerous. As for training that involves live patients, this can be obtained at university hospitals. And even so, to attend the desired training session, students have to wait due to the following reasons:

  • The right patient isn’t always there.
  • The student should agree on the study visit with the patient to be involved and their assigned therapist. Either of them can back off at any moment.

With VR applied, the waiting problem is solved. Students don’t need to ask for permission, and a visit to a virtual patient always takes place as scheduled. Besides, there’s no need to wait for a suitable patient to show up. For example, with Oxford Medical Simulation (OMS), a VR tool introduced in 2017, students can choose a suitable patient scenario, access the virtual hospital, and repeat a procedure as many times as needed. Besides, the work on scenarios goes on, and as of 2020, OMS offers 17 detailed cases.

Realistic experience
Training on cadavers and mannequins, students don’t get prepared to deal with real patients when it comes to their complaints, resentment, fear, and other unpleasant emotions. VR platforms and devices fully mimic patients’ behavior and help students learn suitable behavior patterns.

Contrary to popular belief, VR manages to cause an emphatic reaction in students. Sally Shiels, an anesthetist and a medical education fellow at the University of Oxford reports in an article for the Guardian that her students have a “genuine sense of duty” toward the virtual patient when working with the OMS simulation tool.

Besides, 3D designers do their best to provide the most realistic look and feel of a ward, ICU, or another hospital location. Describing his experience with Osso VR, an immersive digital platform for surgery students and surgeons, Michael Seem states in the Guardian article cited above: “You have the sound of anesthesia machines behind you, you have the pulse of the patient beeping in the background – it’s familiar down to every last detail.”

Professional development
VR tools also promote professional growth. Using these handy tools, medical practitioners don’t need to peep into books or do Google search to verify a procedure or treatment recommendation. They can connect with their peers in immersive VR hospitals through a healthcare app and ask for advice via their mobile phone.

With the Medical Realities platform, users just need to create an account on the website, download the corresponding app from Google Play or Apple Store, and start the app on their phone via a simple cardboard device. The ease of use stimulates adoption and fosters positive experience.

Quality training without borders
In some regions of the world, access to higher medical education is limited due to its cost. At the same time, the demand for doctors there is consistently high. The Lancet Commission of Global Surgery reports that to fully cover the need for surgical care by 2030 in the developing world, the number of surgeons needs to double.

VR-powered platforms create full-scale immersive experiences at low cost and often even free of charge. The main things required are VR applications and headwear, which has recently dropped in price. With this toolset, students from all over the world can access a virtual hospital and master their skills in the chosen medical field either with their peers or alone.

What’s more, VR training environments also provide for improving soft skills. For example, the Virti platform has an emergency mode, where students learn to offer due care to the injured in emergencies. The amalgamation of VR, AI, and natural language processing creates naturalistic situations and helps students learn to work under stress.

Unbiased assessment
Traditionally, assessing a student’s readiness to perform a certain type of care has been the responsibility of experienced doctors or peers. This practice is faulty due to the human factor, and the fact that re-assessment is sometimes required in case of an incident only proves it.

Medical VR tools allow assessing without bias through clear metrics. For example, with Osso VR, surgeons can train to perform a certain surgery in a virtual operating room and then measure their proficiency with an unbiased built-in analytics solution.

Challenges in medical training with VR
Though VR is beneficial for medical training and professional improvement, it does pose some challenges to consider.

Introducing VR into a medical school curriculum is a complex and time-consuming process. This happens due to several reasons:

  • Faculty aversion. With traditional methods of medical teaching in use for decades, faculties might often turn hostile to VR, MR, and XR innovations, considering them a gimmick that brings no value to medical education.
  • Team set-up difficulty. Introducing VR into the curriculum requires seamless collaboration of medical practitioners, programmers, 3D designers, educators, students, and university management. Getting all these people with very different backgrounds to work toward a common goal, however beneficial, takes a lot of time.

Given the reasons above, not every school is ready to invest money and effort into a VR project just yet.

A learning curve of its own
Learning to perform medical procedures in VR is not simple. Though the quality of VR equipment is continuously improving, using a VR headset confidently still requires some adaptation. With a VR headset on, users report dizziness and motion sickness, and learning to operate controllers precisely takes some time.

Summing up
Introducing VR in medical education shows up as beneficial for both students and professors, and the payoffs are worth overcoming the challenges.

For students, VR helps mitigate major hurdles of medical education, making it more flexible and accessible anytime. Moreover, VR transforms medical training into dynamic teaching that’s highly responsive to students’ needs. This improves learner experience and fosters motivation, which in turn results in better academic achievements.

VR benefits for professors are no less significant. VR provides clear-cut evaluation benchmarks that foster fact-based decision-making. Besides, university professors who teach medical sciences are often practicing doctors, and for them too VR offers ample opportunities for lifelong professional growth. With VR in place, they can learn and master new skills to use them in practice and teach them to their students. This helps keep medical education up-to-date.