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Last updated: Jan 3, 2022

VR applications for surgery training

Author: Maria Tsarouva
Last updated: Jan 3, 2022

For medical students considering a surgical speciality, the path to get there can be long and intense. Surgical residencies last a minimum of five years following medical school.

In order to master their craft, surgeons need a lot of hands-on learning experiences in the operating room, where they can watch and assist more experienced surgeons. But it can take many times viewing and assisting a procedure to master it, and they may lack exposure to some of the rarer situations that they need to learn how to address. In fact, a recent University of Michigan study found that 30% of surgeons weren't able to operate independently after completing their residencies.

However, today's surgeons in training aren’t limited to training on cadavers, as the medical students of the past were. Today, med students often participate in VR simulations to help them understand what it feels like to operate on a patient.

VR surgical training gives students a hands-on, immersive experience to develop their skill sets in the operating room on complex cases, without assuming any risk of causing injury to their patients. And it provides a superior learning experience to traditional hands-on training: A 2019 study from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that medical students trained on VR simulations were able to complete an orthopedic procedure 20 percent faster than traditionally trained students, and they completed 38 percent more steps correctly.

Here's a look at some of the technological innovations in surgical training that are helping medical students and new surgeons hone their skills.


VR surgical simulations

Surgical simulation VR tools, like Osso, work with Oculus Rift VR headsets to provide immersive experiences for healthcare professionals and students.

Such simulations can provide custom training experiences for any type of procedure, and enable groups of students and faculty to collaborate on a single procedure in a virtual operating room. Users receive haptic feedback over the course of the procedure, feeling resistance within the simulation in the same areas that they would in an actual human body.

These simulators can provide guided instructions, and provide real-time assessments to measure how well students are meeting proficiency milestones. Unlike in a hands-on surgery, students will be able to accurately gauge both how correctly and how quickly they performed the required steps. Faculty can also get detailed analytics to understand trends in performance, so that they know which procedures or which steps in a procedure are most challenging, and can offer better educational support.

3D teleconferencing

Another rising trend in surgical training is using VR for broadcasting live procedures via 3D conferencing. Using products like Immertec's Medoptic, doctors and students can put on their VR headset and get the same 3D view of the operating room as the performing physician—and can ask them questions about the procedure as they go. The company's CEO, Erik Maltais, refers to it as "a combination of MasterClass and Twitch for healthcare in VR."

Augmented Reality training

While it's not exactly the same as VR, many medical students and surgeons in training also make use of augmented reality platforms to operate on anatomical rubber or plastinated models of the human form. The AR technology is used to enhance the model, by displaying a photorealistic graphic overlay so that the user gets a highly accurate understanding of the anatomy as they operate.


Virtual reality and augmented reality training for medical students and residents provides many benefits to the healthcare community—particularly in light of COVID-19, when medical resources have been redirected towards caring for COVID patients, providing fewer training and observation opportunities for elective healthcare procedures. In fact, the number of surgeries with a trainee as a primary operating surgeon has decreased by 50% between 2019 and 2020.

VR and AR training exercises can help to fill the gap when surgeons in training don't have access to the hands-on operating room experiences they might otherwise use to improve their skills. They can even be used in isolation from the user's own home environment, as has been the case during medical school lockdowns.

VR training can also democratize access to training in areas that are more rural or limited in resources, and won't offer its trainees access to the hands-on learning experiences that they need to improve.

For instance, the AR company VirtaMed works with Orbis, an eye charity. The company sends its system to physicians in rural outback areas so that they can use its AR technology to learn how to perform cataract surgery, without hands-on instruction from another physician.

The evidence is also clear that students who use AR and VR surgical training have better outcomes than students who only use traditional training techniques. A UCLA study performed in 2019 found that surgeons who'd trained with VR technology had a 230% improvement over those who didn't.

Such technology is ideal not only for medical students and residents, but also for active surgeons who are learning new procedures or training techniques.

The bottom line? VR and AR surgery tools provide ideal environments to immerse healthcare practitioners in a hyper-realistic operating environment, in which their performance can be accurately measured at every point in time. Using these tools, instructors will be able to identify their students' weak spots, and provide focused guidance to help them improve quickly. They can complete the same procedures as many times as it takes to meet their benchmarks—which might take weeks or months if students relied only on hands-on OR experience.

By incorporating virtual and augmented reality into their training toolbox, medical students and residents can quickly gain and continually practice the skills to become better surgeons, so they'll be confident when they move from VR into the OR.