Lectures vs. Virtual Reality Surgery Lessons and Prep


It’s 2018 and technology has become deeply ingrained in almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives.  We use it to make everything easier, more convenient, or more effective; from communicating with friends to cooking and even sleeping, hardly anything has been left untouched. Of course, There are some fields which have gone mostly unchanged, with lecture halls remaining the most popular way to reach students of traditional higher education fields like medicine, nursing, and surgery.  However, more recent advancements in immersive virtual reality (VR) could lead to more interactive models of learning at low cost and even lower risk, even for the most hands-on fields. In the future, even didactics can be practical.


Traditional lectures

The current model hasn’t changed much in the last two-hundred years: students go to a lecture hall, textbooks in hand, and listen to a professor lecture at length on the subject at hand.

The advantages of this method are well known. There’s hardly any cost, save the professor’s time and the space for the hall itself. There’s no adaptation required and you can reach a fairly large number of students at one time with the same info, while ensuring at least a modicum of participation from students’ physical presence.

Of course, the disadvantages of this method are equally well known. Lectures can be very unengaging (even downright boring) regardless of the topic being discussed. They can also be unadapting, with lectures remaining more or less the same for many years at a time. Probably the biggest drawback of this style, though, is that it offers little reinforcement outside of reading textbooks and taking tests, neither of which help students master the physical skills that are necessary in surgical fields. This leaves them disconnected from the practical side of their studies.


Virtual reality

How can this status quo be challenged? One possible future model uses VR technology giving a vision of the future with considerably more hands-on learning, and an eye towards ALL education in the medical field being practical.

In a VR environment combined with haptic feedback devices, information about procedures can be transmitted at the same time as actual, physical practice on the procedure, thus reinforcing knowledge through kinesthetic, audio, and visual learning. Many students could participate at once, in one room or across multiple locations. With the professor speaking to all while also enabling one-on-one instruction through direct connections - lessons can be taught anywhere, at any time, throughout the world and in multiple languages, offering much more flexibility for everyone’s increasingly busy lives.

Naturally, this method has its disadvantages as well. It is more expensive, requiring a significant initial investment in hardware and software, as well as training of professors and university staff. This could, in turn, reduce the number of students able to participate at one time, as they could be limited to how much physical hardware is available. Making up for missed classes would become more complex than simply watching or listening to a recording of the lesson or borrowing somebody’s notes. Also, creating flexible lesson plans could become more difficult, as instructors wouldn’t be able to adjust content without the aid of a developer or an intuitive content management system (CMS).


Outcome comparison

A group of residents in training was learning about thoracic pedicle screw placement surgery. The control group received a lecture prior to their practical application of their knowledge on a patient. The test group spent approximately 15 minutes in a high-resolution augmented reality simulator with haptic feedback, literally going through the motions of the surgery realistically while reading and hearing instructions on the procedure. When the test group performed the surgery on a patient, they saw a 53.4% reduction in errors in the placement of pedicle screws.  


Safer, faster, better

It stands to reason, both logically and empirically, that hands-on practice (even performed virtually) teaches and reinforces concepts more quickly and more thoroughly than simply listening to someone explain it. Lessons done using VR could render even greater benefits, such as allowing students an up-close, in-depth look at anatomy, while allowing them to practice the specific techniques they’ll need to use without any risk to patients or waste in materials. This could lead to greater confidence and fewer errors when actually performing medical procedures, making for a better, safer overall experience for doctors and patients alike.

Nik Amar