The use of new virtual reality technology in education and training has been pioneered in a wide variety of industries in recent months. However, VR technology has already moved beyond an education role and is now being utilised in actual procedures at the ‘cutting’ edge of medicine. An operating theatre in London was recently the scene of the first operation involving a mixed real/virtual reality team of surgeons. Last Thursday in Whitechapel’s Royal London Hospital, an NHS patient successfully had a bowel tumour removed by a lead surgeon present in the operating theatre, assisted by two human-shaped blue avatar surgeons.
The two avatars in the operating theatre with Professor Shafi Ahmed, who goes by the moniker of ‘the Virtual Surgeon’ due to his work in pioneering the use of new VR technology in surgery, were not digital surgeons. They were Professor Shailesh Shrikhande, a leading leading cancer surgeon based in Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, and Mr Hitesh Patel, a consultant colorectal surgeon from private medical facility BMI The London Independent Hospital.
All three surgeons, each in different actual locations, were wearing Microsoft Hololens VR headsets which consist of glasses, headphones and speakers. The VR technology meant that the two ‘remote’ assistants were able to view the operating theatre, as well as be able to pull patient notes and images up in front of their eyes. They could also stand, move and speak as though in the same space, the other two colleagues appearing to each as blue human-shaped avatars.
The use of VR technology in the education of surgeons and other medical personnel is already becoming mainstream. ‘The Virtual Surgeon’ has extensively worn VR sets while working, allowing students and even member of the public to, essentially, see through his eyes and has founded Medical Realities, which uses immersive VR technology to train surgeons. However, it is now thought that VR teams conducting surgery together from different locations across the globe could be routinely used by hospitals within as little as 5 years.
While Thursday’s procedure was routine for Professor Ahmed, and the use of VR more of a demonstration than necessity, the ability to transport specialist assistance into the operating theatre in more unique or complex cases could prove invaluable. The support its use could provide to less experienced surgeons is also a major plus.
Professor Ahmed commented:
“Augmented and virtual reality have incredible potential, not only in the NHS but also to encourage collaboration to improve accessibility, equity and safety in developing countries.”
The future role of virtual reality technology in education has, it would appear, already been established but its role beyond education and in real life situations also now seems closer than we may have thought.