4 to 6 years at medical school, 2 years studying at foundation level, up to 3 years of core medical training and then up to 8 years of speciality training – with the educational path taking up to 18 years, the journey to become a doctor is one of the most demanding. As the country’s healthcare foundation continues to change, doctors are now looking to technology for new ways to teach the healthcare professionals of the future. A key component of this education could soon come from advances in virtual reality.
Typical training would include real life operations with a consultant acting as support. Today that system is starting to change. As patients become more aware of their treatment path, more operations are being led by consultants and senior medical personnel in an attempt to negate errors or malpractice. This, in turn, reduces the trainee’s exposure and diminishes the opportunity for hands-on training. When you factor in cuts to healthcare infrastructure, trainees can struggle to get the experience they need.
Imperial College London is one of just 20 specialist simulation centres in the UK that are turning to virtual reality for medical training. This technology can recreate an authentic OR experience with a full complement of medical staff and equipment to help accurately portray the environment. This can even be combined with medical robotics and operating tools that, with the help of haptic technology, can help the procedures to feel like the real thing. From arterial consistency to x-ray monitors, the entire simulation is designed to present the trainee with an environment that can help them learn.
Simulations can also react to real time challenges with scenarios that can be tailored to a trainee’s speciality. From the incorrect administration of drugs to arterial damage, from allergic reactions to changes in heart rate – these scenarios all come with preprogrammed responses that relay changes to monitors and displays so that the trainee can react in the way they would as if it were real.
When combined with gaming technology such as the Oculus Rift, these simulations could potentially lead to distance learning opportunities. All of these techniques help to elicit a physical response such as an increased heart rate and a rise of adrenaline, so that when the trainee takes these skills into the real world, they can enter the same state-of-mind and focus on the task at hand.
Virtual reality can also help to improve OR communication. When you have 5, 10 or even 15 people in the operating room, communication can often lead to mistakes. With more operations being done on patients who are awake or perhaps under local anaesthetic, trainees need to learn how to communicate effectively with both medical personnel and even patients themselves. The pressure is now on the medical education system with thousands of doctors expected to begin training in the next few years.
Virtual reality can open the doors for more dynamic training, extended learning and continued development. Whether it’s the opportunity to try new operating methods or observe an experimental procedure, the applications today are profound. Where could we be in 10 years? Operations done by doctors in other countries? Post-surgical follow-ups with patients? A back catalogue of famous procedures to learn from? Only time will tell.