One-to-Many: The Future of Surgical Training

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Surgical training is a long, trying journey, fraught with long nights and short on rest. Still, it is ultimately rewarding, designed to produce the most reliable hands possible, in which many will place their lives. Professors and teaching-doctors alike take their time working with prospective surgeons. To ensure that medical students get the time and attention they need to become professionals, they are trained a handful at a time, eschewing quantity for quality.

What if we could keep the thoroughness of the training, while substantially lessening the amount of time it takes to become proficient? What if it were possible to duplicate and expand a single professor’s efforts, magnifying their reach and impact to many more students, without diminishing the quality of the results? Thanks to the increasing use of VR as a teaching tool, the future of surgical training is one-to-many, and here’s how:

The Current Process of Training Surgeons

The methods currently used to train surgeons follows a well-worn path. After students spend years getting their doctoral degree, they begin observation of medical procedures.After some time observing, they begin practicing procedures on cadavers. While this method allows them to see and feel what working on a human body is like, the procedures they are able to practice this way are limited, as are the number of available cadavers, thus limiting the usefulness of this very resource-heavy method.

Next, professors and working or former surgeons guide students in the operating room, as their availability permits. During this time, prospective surgeons are also doing rotations at nearby hospitals, in an effort to be exposed to a variety of patients and procedures, though the level of variation they will encounter is strictly up to chance. Their class sizes are often just large enough to prevent truly individualized attention. Schools and hospitals bear a significant investment in money and resources training these students, and professors dedicate large amounts of time and energy in the instruction of so many students.

Would-be surgeons will spend three to eight years in surgical residency, either hoping to get a chance to practice on rare cases as they come in, or possibly travelling significant distances to find them for observation. During this time they must also choose a speciality from the procedures they have been part of and concentrate on it. At the same time, they are shadowing surgeons, again relying on chance regarding the procedures they’re able to see, and practicing on dummies with limited variation, and performing assistant surgeon duties. Finally, they take their place as full-fledged surgeons, after years of on strenuous effort.

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The Future of Surgical Training That VR is Enabling

With the increased use of emerging VR-assisted technology and training, the whole of surgical training will begin to evolve. After students get their medical degree, they will begin observation with live patients, and also be able to explore additional relevant cases with immersive simulations using real DICOM data outside of these sessions. VR training with haptic feedback can provide an accurate simulation of exactly what  a surgery feels like, from instruments used, to the resistance of tissue, to the size and shape of body parts. Increased practice with VR means fewer cadavers need be used, saving school resources in acquiring and maintaining them.

One professor will now be able to guide countless students, as physical location will no longer present a barrier to instruction. The instructor could demonstrate to all students at once, and then enter specific student’s virtual environments individually for one-on-one assistance. Meanwhile, students will be able to practice procedures at their leisure using VR equipment and real patient data, finding the speciality that’s right for them and getting a real feel for it.

With the amount of cases and practice now available for students to train with, medical residencies might even be shortened, with far greater flexibility and variation available to prospective surgeons. When students are not assisting in procedures, they’ll be able to prep and practice with real, accurate CT scan and MRI data, often from the patients in question. This will mean going into procedures with experience and specific knowledge of a case . All of these changes work cumulatively, allowing skills and knowledge to increase exponentially, meaning more residents know what they’re doing more quickly, with far less waste, and far fewer errors. This increased experience leads to fewer mistakes and all-around better patient outcomes.

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How Much Will VR Disrupt Medicine?

Traditional medical education won’t be completely replaced by VR, but it will become enhanced, efficient, and more able to scale up with fewer resources. More surgeons, more competency, better outcomes.