Virtual reality has proven to be of real benefit in surgery where it has played (and continues to) an important role in training surgeons. Two examples of this include robotic surgery and ‘virtual surgery’ or surgery simulation.
Surgery simulation is discussed further in a separate article. This article provides a general overview of virtual reality and surgery.
The healthcare sector is one of the biggest adopters of virtual reality, in particular as a means of training the next generation of medical professionals. This technology enables trainee surgeons to gain valuable experience but in a safe environment. They learn skills and techniques without causing harm to patients and receive constant feedback as they do so.
This acts as a way of building their confidence and helping them to gain experience. Performing a surgical procedure on a virtual patient enables them to try a newly acquired technique or refresh dormant skills. Plus if they make a mistake then it is done without risk to themselves or their ‘patient’.
Robotic surgery is a recent innovation in which surgery is performed using a robotic device, e.g. robotic arm which is controlled by a human surgeon. This means fewer risks of complications during surgery and a faster procedure. The robotic device is accurate, meaning smaller incisions, reduced blood loss and faster recovery.
Virtual reality enables the surgeon to control the movements of the robotic arm, in particular, small, delicate movements which would be difficult to perform by a human surgeon. Another use is ‘remote telesurgery’ where the patient is operated on by a surgeon who is in a different location. In other words, he or she is in a separate location to the patient.
A crucial factor in this is force feedback: this is the name given to a set of physical responses experienced by a person when using an interactive device, for example a joystick on a flight simulator. With robotic surgery it is vital that the surgeon feels a physical response when manipulating the device which informs him/her of how much pressure to use. This then enables him/her to make any necessary adjustments.