How Healthcare Virtual Reality Can Improve Surgical Procedures

July 24, 20193.5 minutes

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Remember that (debunked) urban legend about business travelers being robbed of their kidneys and left in ice-filled bathtubs with nothing but a note? As outlandish as that was, it touched on some very real concerns—the high cost of and demand for human organs. Surgical training programs are all too familiar these issues, and they’re turning to healthcare virtual reality for help.

Depending on the body parts used and their condition, the cost of the supplies needed to train new surgeons can run anywhere from $500 to $262,000. These prices make the idea of a black market for organs sound pretty believable. But in reality, the medical community’s answer is a lot less macabre and much more high-tech.

Healthcare virtual reality vs. robots

Virtual reality training for surgeons isn’t exactly new, but recent advancements in healthcare technology have made it even more important as a tool. Surgical robots are currently used by one out of every three hospitals in the United States. While this tech has innumerable benefits, the reliance on robots has also taken learning opportunities away from new surgeons who could miss out on critical interactions with experienced practitioners. So what hope is left for tomorrow’s surgeons? VR has stepped in to fill in the gaps that robotics is creating.

Residency programs all over the U.S., including those at Harvard, Vanderbilt, Columbia, and UCLA, are incorporating VR into their teaching programs, and the potential benefits are huge. For instance, orthopedic training requires 14 years of schooling after high school, and even then, there’s no substitute for experience—given the stakes, VR simulations can serve as the next best thing.

Through VR training, practicing surgeons can get their hands on the same technology that’s used in robotic surgeries. At the University of Louisville for example, surgeons are training using the same hand and foot controls that are used in live robotic surgeries and learning to avoid life-threatening surgical mistakes.

Building a new kind of surgeon with virtual reality

VR surgical training isn’t just for new practitioners. If you’ve ever heard a surgeon discuss potential risks that could arise from new discoveries once a surgical procedure has started, you likely understand one of the most important benefits of VR training for surgeons: the ability to examine the subject thoroughly before surgery begins.

For instance, doctors at Stanford University prepare to operate on patients’ brains by stepping into virtualized environments. MRI and CT images provide limited insight into what’s going on in a patient’s brain, but when those images are merged with VR technology, an incredibly realistic practice environment can be created. This can enable doctors to simulate surgery and cut back on unexpected discoveries.

Haptic feedback

While navigating a virtual chest cavity with remote controlled forceps is a neat concept, healthcare virtual reality isn’t just about learning to drive mechanical arms. Surgeons still need to develop the skills to perform hands-on procedures, and that’s where haptic feedback in surgical training comes in.

Haptic feedback—vibrations or resistance designed to simulate the sensations of physical interaction—is a concept that most people are probably already familiar with thanks to the buzzes and vibrations from their smartphones. For surgeons in training, this concept takes shape in the form of an immersive, realistic learning experience that can help to improve speed and reduce accidents.

Surgical insecurity?

With all the benefits that VR training offers, healthcare IT leaders face one undeniable fact: any new technology that is added to their environments will likely compound security threats.

While healthcare security tends to focus on mobile devices that store and access sensitive healthcare information, many pieces of business tech—from the humble office printer to cutting-edge medical robotics—pose risks.

The unsecured endpoint problem

As sophisticated as robots and VR training systems may be, attacks against them can look very similar to other software-based attacks. After all, they are part of the Internet of Medical Things and are endpoints themselves. One vulnerable device can place all devices on the network at risk.

Hackers attack healthcare networks for a number of reasons, and in the case of VR surgery and robots, critical machinery being hijacked during a key moment in a procedure could lead to disastrous outcomes. The University of Washington has already proved that cyber attacks can be used to interfere with remotely operated robots sitting on public networks. Medical robots being hacked is a real possibility, and healthcare IT leaders need to be ready to respond with protections on all fronts.

Safeguarding medical robots and VR solutions means securing not only these devices but also all lower-profile endpoints like printers that could be used as gateways into these critical machines. As the sophistication of medical technology grows, a cybersecurity posture that leverages endpoints as checkpoints for security will be increasingly important in maintaining the health and well-being of organizations and their patients.

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