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Last updated: Dec 27, 2021

How to use virtual reality in medical education

Author: Maria Tsarouva
Last updated: Dec 27, 2021

Virtual reality (VR) technology is an immersive experience that enables users to access virtual environments that feel "real" to them. With the aid of a head-mounted display (HMD), users can immerse themselves in audio-visual experiences that respond to their movements and interactions.

While you might have played some VR games at home, the technology has broad applications that go beyond consumer gaming—particularly in the medical industry. In recent years, many medical schools and teaching hospitals have embraced the use of VR technology to train medical students and healthcare practitioners in new skills in a safe environment. They also make heavy use of an associated technology, augmented reality (AR), in which virtual images and sounds are superimposed into the real world.

In this article, we'll walk through some of the use cases for VR in medical education, and what its benefits are.


Simulating medical procedures and emergency scenarios

While medical students and residents still get a lot of their knowledge from participating in hands-on training, there are some situations where the odds of going wrong are too extreme to give them decision-making power. In cases like these, a simulated environment allows students and residents to take a lead role in an emergency scenario, with no risk of making the wrong choice and causing harm to a real patient.

For example, three years ago, a first-year resident at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Travus White, MD, was able to participate in a simulated environment involving a scenario where he led a team trying to save the life of a toddler who was experiencing a life-threatening allergic reaction. He was able to virtually choose the right course of treatment, ensuring the patient's survival. This helped him get a sense of the quick decision-making needed in a real ER, without any of the associated risk.

VR technology is also used to help students learn to operate and participate in medical procedures, with a virtual body replacing a real-world human subject or training cadaver. For instance, surgeons in training can virtually repair a bone fracture, with the VR software providing guidance and judging the accuracy of the user’s motions throughout the course of the operation. A study assessing the performance of the medical students who’d been given VR-based training for this procedure showed that they completed it 20% faster and completed 38% more steps correctly than those in the traditionally trained group.


VR for immersive 3D visualizations

Remember how Ms. Frizzle took her Magic School Bus inside a human body to teach her students about its inner workings? Now, medical schools can do the same thing with VR visualizations.

In order to give medical students and doctors a better perspective on human anatomy, they can participate in 3D visualizations that allow them to actually go "inside" an organ. At Stanford University, for instance, doctors can go "inside" an infant's beating heart, so that they can explore congenital heart problems and see exactly where the blood is flowing. The university has developed different 3D visualizations for different types of heart defects, so that doctors in training have a detailed understanding of how each one affects the heart functionality.

"It gives you a much better understanding of what you will be looking at in the operating room," said Dr. Luca A. Varicella, chief of pediatric heart transplantation at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Other technologies, such as the Microsoft HoloLens 2 device, also offer medical school faculty the ability to develop their own holographic learning experiences with customizable anatomical content — the software includes access to more than 8,500 3D anatomical objects.

VR for building empathy

It can be difficult for a medical student or doctor to understand the reality of a patient's condition without stepping in their shoes. VR can help them to do that, by simulating specific medical conditions, as in Isobar's Common Ground VR. In this game, users can simulate what it's like to have a visual disability like glaucoma, or a mobility disability that impairs your ability to reach. By playing this game, medical students and doctors can get a sense of the real impairments their patients with these conditions face, helping them to build more empathy and come up with more comprehensive courses of treatment.

VR for difficult patient conversations

"Bedside manner" is where many technically skilled doctors can fall short, so it's also important to provide VR training in the types of tough conversations they're likely to come across. In Kognito's simulation game, medical students and doctors can role-play critical health care conversations with virtual, animated patients that can respond in real-time to your words. Scenarios featured in the game include talking to a child about substance abuse, a student in psychological distress, a patient considering suicide, or a patient who isn’t compliant with taking medication.

Key benefits of VR medical training

VR training provides an ideal opportunity for medical students to gain exposure to new scenarios and gain a better perspective on medical issues through immersive experiences that provide them with hands-on experiences — but without the associated risk of participating in an actual medical case at a hospital. Using VR also means that students can gain access to unique medical situations without waiting for a rare case to be presented, providing them with additional learning and diagnostic training opportunities.

We saw another important use case for VR education with the rise of COVID-19 last year, when many medical schools went on hiatus or shifted to a virtual model. VR technologies like the HoloLens enabled medical schools to keep providing effective education virtually: At Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, 81% of students who used the technology said that the remote anatomy sessions were equivalent to or better than the in-person equivalent; and 58% of students actually preferred the VR learning environment to the in-person classes.

VR technology presents the opportunity to provide a huge variety of simulated learning experiences in the medical field. That helps students gain confidence in their skills, and provides the opportunity to provide unlimited training sessions in which their performance can be measured and assessed. By incorporating VR technologies and apps into a medical learning environment, whether remote or in-person, medical schools and facilities can ensure that their practitioners are ready for all the real-world challenges that may lie ahead in their careers.