VR technology can enable more effective learning and teaching in surgery by taking a page from aviation and using a practical simulator. Simulator dolls or models designed to deliver a lifelike representation of the body via different materials have been around for a long time. Meanwhile, digital simulators that either help train surgeons in an immersive virtual environment using VR headsets or facilitate screen-based simulations are less common.
An example of the latter are the surgical simulators by VirtaMed. The Swiss medical technology manufacturer specializes in arthroscopy simulators. These systems combine a realistic anatomical model of the respective joint and endoscopic equipment with specific tasks trainees are asked to perform on the screen. Assignments include the performance of simulated surgical procedures or more abstract exercises such as using a gripper to catch and place stars that hover over the screen.
In the spring, VirtaMed introduced a mobile surgical simulation lab, which brings medical training to hospitals in a converted cargo van. While this surgical simulation training could never fully replace a real surgery, the mobile laboratory gives physicians the opportunity to practice surgical skills and keep up with medical training requirements even during the coronavirus pandemic. It also reduces the need for patient contact in the operating room.
More complex surgical interventions require training that provides a more intensive level of realistic feel and response. The "Dynamic HIPS" project combines an immersive VR environment with instruments that give users realistic haptic feedback as they practice simulated hip replacement procedures. Surgeons in training not only see the operating room and the patient in front of them, but they also feel a response as they perform the individual surgical steps. "The simulator enables them to practice the surgical procedure in a virtual setting before they perform their first real-life surgery under supervision – all without the need for human body donations or animals," Mario Lorenz explains in a MEDICA-tradefair.com interview.
Whether the goal is to avoid close contact during the COVID-19 pandemic or to conserve educational resources, virtual reality simulation-based training offers one key benefit: Surgeons can use it to refine their skills in training and improve their operative performance, even if there are presently no acute cases in their hospital that require treatment. It is a more direct approach to introduce surgeons to surgical procedures and eliminates the need for them to repeatedly observe surgeries before they ultimately perform the procedure on their own. This fosters a greater appreciation and better understanding of the processes, while it also helps them to overcome potential fears and insecurities.