The story behind the technology and how VR could transform training for surgeons of all stripes. An interview with our Medical education team. Read the original article here.
Early on, FundamentalVR brought in technologists from the virtual reality and gaming industries. We had a specific focus on haptics – the “technology of touch” – and developed a unique system: HapticVR; after all, users need to experience not only sights and sounds but also sensations for successful surgical skill acquisition, and in particular for building manual dexterity. Haptic cues are also helpful for physicians to practice clinical decision-making as they develop muscle memory, required for proficiency.
After originally focusing on orthopedics VR simulations, we started exploring other possibilities, landing on ophthalmology as one of the most exciting areas of precision medicine. It was also a great fit; the eye is highly complex and ophthalmic surgical procedures demand a great deal of training, but at the same time you’re working with a rather small, contained anatomy, which works really well for our simulations. When we started working with Orbis International, the global vision charity, we realized how much potential our technology had on a global scale. We are now exploring other opportunities in the ophthalmic space, with the help of our global medical panel. We are looking for possibilities to solve various ophthalmic training needs and scale this project up to support surgical trainees worldwide.
And presumably the COVID-19 pandemic puts an attractive spin on VR?
Absolutely. Opportunities to observe and take part in real surgeries have been really limited in the past few months. We can provide a safe environment, without the need for classroom learning, meetings, and crowding operating rooms. Tissue-based wet lab training has been challenging to sustain since the COVID-19 pandemic started, so our system is a good alternative for ophthalmologists looking to hone their skills.
Before the pandemic, many people charged with training future surgeons saw simulation as useful, valuable and necessary, whereas now it is seen as an absolute necessity because of the lack of alternatives. People realize that, even when the current pandemic is over, the future is more uncertain than we’d imagined, and there is a need to invest in surgical simulations that can become a major aspect of training. COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for the industry; it became clear that the old ways of delivering training were not the most efficient ones. And other new benefits have come to light, such as standardization of techniques and practice, and setting clear patient safety records.
What’s in the future for VR surgery simulations?
As I hinted above, I can see industrialized countries adopting VR as part of core surgical training within five years. We’re planning to work closely with the industry to develop simulations for 10-20 percent of major procedures every year – an effort that can really help standardize surgical training in different parts of the world. The more embedded VR is in official residency programs, the more data we have to further improve training practices.
For low- and middle-income countries, the potential for using VR is huge – especially as equipment costs come down and as regular laptops are able to run simulations. We need a range of consumer-ready scalable hardware technologies for which companies like ours can develop simulation software, which is made available as a license to large numbers of users.
Eventually, I would like to see surgical residents in all specialties having easy access to a VR headset at home, and a haptic VR system at their hospital or clinic, so they can work on developing their skills in their own time.
As new generations of surgeons come through their medical training, they’ll be used to interactive and rich-media training elements. To them, VR might not have the same “wow” factor it might have for surgeons from previous generations, so it might be more natural for them to go straight to figuring out how this technology can help them hone their skills, learning from their mistakes in a safe way.