How virtual reality is changing medical practice: “Doctors want to use this to give better patient outcomes”

The Giant Health Event heard about the growing impact of once outdated technology on areas including surgery, medical education, psychiatry, and palliative care, reports Jo Best

“It was meant to be the next big thing in the 1990s,” says Steve Dann, chief executive of Medical Realities, of virtual reality (VR). “But the technology wasn’t up to it, it couldn’t deliver what our imaginations wanted, and it withered on the vine,” he told the Giant Health Event in London in November.

The missing ingredient, says Dann, was access to substantial computing power—power that was once reserved for the big enterprise users but is now available within the average smart phone.

In recent years, processing power has grown while the cost of VR hardware has fallen, and healthcare organisations have begun to experiment with the technology.

Delegates at the conference explored the potential for VR and augmented reality (AR) to change medical practice, not only for doctors currently practising but also for medical students and trainee surgeons across the world.

Perioperative planning

Surgery has been an early adopter, using AR to help surgeons better plan their procedures as well as informing their work during operations.

Unlike VR, in which the wearer is transported to an entirely different environment, AR keeps the user within their current environment but overlays visual or audio information on top of it.

In surgery, computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans are used to create 3D reconstructions of a patient’s anatomy, which surgeons are then able to “see” through AR headsets. Those anatomical maps can be explored in 3D before surgery begins, or overlaid on to a patient on the operating table during the procedure. Surgeons essentially gain x ray vision, allowing them to see inside the patient before they pick up a scalpel.