#6 Virtual and Mixed Reality for Medical Education


You are strapped in a roller coaster car approaching the top of a steep hill. Your palms begin to sweat and your heart races. As the front of your car dangles over the edge and plunges to the valley below, your stomach drops – the scene feels like complete reality. When the ride is over and you remove your goggles, you remember that you are not at the amusement park. The ride you’ve just experienced was completely virtual, but it felt eerily real.
Virtual reality, or VR, is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Different from traditional user interfaces, virtual reality immerses the user inside an experience. In a virtual reality simulation, users are able to interact with the 3D world before them as if they are a part of it. VR stimulates the senses to transport the user to an artificial world and provide an experience that mimics the experience in real life. A headset is the device commonly used to experience said virtual reality.

Mixed reality, or MR, is the use of computer technology to merge real and virtual worlds to create a new hybrid environment. In this hybrid environment, physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. Mixed reality technology anchors virtual objects to the real world allowing users to interact with them. Mixed reality is often brought about through the use of glasses and a controller.

The abstract concepts of virtual and mixed reality have dazzled audiences for quite some time, but with improving technology, access to the concepts is greater than ever before. VR/MR technology are now commercially available for several applications and play a great role in many fields. Arguably their most important application, the systems have recently caught the eye of healthcare professionals eager to sharpen their skills. For those in the healthcare field, virtual/mixed reality can provide training in procedures, techniques, and equipment use as well as simulate patient interactions in a far more immersive and realistic way.

According to the cone of learning from Edgar Dale, after two weeks, the human brain remembers 10% of what it reads, 20% of what it hears, and 90% of what it does or simulates. By this logic, virtual/mixed reality programs have the opportunity to completely revolutionize the way medical professionals are educated today. Education via simulation could be a productive step toward the system’s most adept and confident healthcare providers.

Virtual and mixed reality training programs provide future physicians/surgeons/emergency medical personnel the “hands-on” experience needed to be fully fluent the first day on the job. The simulations made possible by the technology are an excellent alternative to the traditional videos and textbooks used to educate. Educational videos and textbooks have been a useful way to disseminate information in the past, but in light of advanced technology, they seem a bit outdated. With this immersive style of learning, VR/MR training appeals to all types of learners: audio, visual, and kinesthetic.

Though not a replacement for physical hands-on practice, virtual and mixed reality are increasing situational experience and face time with “patients.” Albeit fictitious, the experience with patients provided by the simulations allows students to test the waters of caregiving. Virtual and mixed reality medical education is therefore useful for students who are not quite ready for the action that is the hospital. Giving students practice with the computer simulation is a low-risk alternative and, in extreme cases, can prevent patient harm.

Although in development for years, the concepts of virtual and mixed reality are transformative now due to a shift in consumer-grade technology and costs. With technology improving and prices falling, institutions will find it easier to engage the systems. To date, a number of pilot programs involving virtual and/or mixed reality training for medical students have been implemented worldwide. In 2016, the Cleveland Clinic began one such program for its medical students. In 2018, a well-known virtual reality company announced its partnerships with eight top U.S. medical residency programs to provide “hands-on” training opportunities for new surgeons. A recent report from an advanced technology higher education consortium revealed that as of June 2018, near 46% of universities and colleges have deployed VR in some form on campus. Though not exclusive to medicine, this statistic demonstrates the technology’s usefulness in classrooms nationwide. The technology’s new applications have many dubbing virtual and mixed reality, the new reality.

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