Future or fad? Virtual reality in medical education

High-tech simulations transport students into emergency situations and inside human organs. But are they the best way for students to learn?

VR and Now AR Medical Solutions Are Gaining Ground in Hospitals

At the same time, consumer purchases of AR and VR devices have reached something of a disappointing plateau, those technologies are finding an increasing number of homes in the industry. One field where various forms of augmented experiences are gaining ground is medicine. 

Pre-Planning Surgery in VR

One of the first applications of VR in medicine was the pre-visualization of upcoming operations. The surgeon can navigate a 3D view of the patient’s MRI or other scans, get a sense for what they would find during the procedure, and plan how they might want to proceed. More recently, there have been attempts to provide that same information in real-time during the surgical procedure itself.

Visualizing both a surgical procedure and its results is a powerful tool both for the doctor and for communicating to patients. Now you can practice different ways of performing a particular surgery to find the best one before beginning the actual procedure. 

However, overlaying augmented information onto the patient requires extremely accurate modeling and alignment, so it has a lot of limitations. For example, it works much better for bones than it does for more flexible soft tissue. It also requires that the patient be still, as systems that can dynamically track patient movements with the overlay are still in the early stages.

Surgical Robots Make Virtual Surgery Possible

In many cases, surgery has moved past the doctor interacting directly with the physical tools and seeing the procedure directly with their eyes. A computer and robot are in the middle, translating hand motions to surgical instrument movements, and relaying 3D views of the surgery through custom viewing stations or monitors. Once there’s a computer system between the surgeon and the patient, it’s possible to simulate the surgical theater and the surgery itself. There are numerous uses and benefits to simulating surgery. One is to use it to plan and practice. Surgical training is another very important use case.

There are several different ways VR systems can provide training tools. The system can provide a guidance overlay for training, or let the surgeon go completely unguided — potentially evaluating their performance at the same time. It’s a little early to know how effective these tools are over existing solutions like 2D telestration on the student’s monitor, but some initial user studies say that having 3D tools overlaid may greatly reduce errors.


As exciting as all the applications of AR and VR on the medical field, they’re only slowly gaining broad acceptance. Various of the speakers explained why. First, the solutions are still quite expensive, particularly in the time needed to develop and implement them. Even setting up and using the systems takes time.

But VR provides the hospital’s teams and Universities with improved patient experience and improved education for both patients and aspiring surgeons. Until there’s proof an advanced technology improves patient outcomes or reduces cost, it’s unlikely to be paid for by insurance, or find itself in the budgets of the majority of financially challenged hospitals.

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