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How is Virtual Reality Impacting Surgery?

Posted on 12.04.2019

In 2017, three surgeons worked together to remove a tumour from a patient. This wouldn’t be that unusual, except for the fact that one of them was actually in his hospital in Mumbai and another was in a hospital across London. The two absent surgeons were able to assist with the use of HoloLens headsets which allowed them to see each other as avatars standing and speaking as if they were all really there. According to one report, ‘Three dimensional holograms of scans of the tumour were hovered in the theatre which allowed the specialists to virtually draw on the image to aid discussion while the patient was on the operating table.’ 


Medicine and tech have always gone hand in hand to some extent, with doctors pushing forward innovations to help them save more lives with greater ease. With every leap forward, there are always teething problems, ethical dilemmas and kinks in the process. The NHS may not always have the money to implement cutting edge technologies and, even when it does, these may get tangled up in red tape, bringing its rollout to a grinding halt. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are one such innovation being hailed as the next big thing in medicine. Unsurprising considering how widely these two inventions are being adopted in various sectors, from gaming to furniture companies 


Surgery is only one facet of what VR and AR can be used for. According to reports, VR is easing anxiety for patients facing neurosurgery by placing them in a ‘a virtual world of 3D, computer-generated graphics to allow neurosurgeons to take a “tour” of an individual’s brain, using the headset to view a 3D representation, compiled from computerised tomography (CT) scans, of X-ray images. The consultant can explain what they are seeing as they explore the VR model.’   


VR is also helping to train the next generation of surgeons by allowing them to practise procedures over and over again until they become instinctive, as well as keeping them up to date with all the latest techniques. It may also be effective than traditional methods, as studies show that VR’s immersive training improves performance by 230% compared with students who use text and video-based learning. As with the three surgeons working together to remove the tumour we mentioned earlier, surgeons often don’t get the opportunity to work together before an operation, if at all. VR enables them to do run-throughs or appear in the theatre virtually. 


AR has its role too, with robots being used in surgery more and more often for their precision and minimal invasiveness. The surgeon controls the instruments on the robotic arms and watches the surgery on a 3D camera. As they do this, AR displays data and information on the image to augment what they see and create a ‘map’ through the patient’s body to guide the surgeon. The use of this technology is growing and has the financial receipts to prove it; 400 healthcare VR start-ups raised an estimated $4bn in funding in 2017, up from approximately $2.5bn the year before. 


There are still problems with the tech, including the headsets themselves which can get heavy, hot or uncomfortable. Surgery is obviously incredibly precise, and anything used needs to be able to manoeuvre deftly and without error. However, the medical world seems keen to introduce it as soon as it is field-ready with some industry insiders predicting wide use of VR and AR in operating rooms within two years.

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