When it comes to entertainment, the uses and applications of Virtual and Augmented Reality, or VR/AR, are well documented. The devices are already familiar to tech buffs and gamers alike, with seemingly weekly new developments, from apps to fully fledged video games, being announced.
But beyond the field of the entertainment industry, there are many sectors in which the correct application of VR could be extremely beneficial for everyone involved, and nowhere is this truer than with healthcare.
In terms of training, a problem that traditional, mannequin based techniques have suffered from is their lack of customisability. If clinical skills training is to be as effective as possible, then variety is key. Otherwise, the process seems artificial to the student.
Realism is another issue that VR can hopefully help with. With standard training methods, the mannequin that the student touches, doesn’t feel real at all in most cases, and the more realistic iterations of the mannequins can cost up to £100,000.
As VR technology becomes more sophisticated, then the realism, and so, the overall effectiveness of the training will increase. And despite the common misconception that VR can be occassionally an isolating experience, it actually allows for more collaboration between teams who may not even be working in the same country.
As with all technology, initially, the prices will probably be high. As mentioned earlier, a top of the range, highly realistic mannequin set, complete and ready to use, can cost up to £100,000.
Initially, is it even possible to replace this with VR? And in terms of costs, would it be cheaper? Well the first question, to give a short answer, is yes. With the correct management these training processes could be replaced with VR. But in terms of costs, the answer is less clear cut.
Right now, it may not be possible to match the quality of the mannequin for the same price, as VR technology is fairly new. But with time, and investment, the prices will drop right down, and in the not too distant future, VR could be a viable and cheaper alternative. The question is when and where to invest, so that the process is as quick as possible.
Now this isn’t to say that VR will ever completely replace more traditional, hands-on methods. The human factor will always have to be taken into account, and as with flying, there is a common school of thought that no amount of simulation can prepare you for the real thing.
But VR can bridge the gap, so that when a student finally moves on to a body, the transition is as seamless as possible. It also means that, when it comes to practicing potentially dangerous procedures, the risk to the patient is reduced. Some of these procedures could do serious damage if performed incorrectly, and the first time you try it the success rate is going to be far lower than the hundredth time. Using VR as a bridge in this sense, will be beneficial for everyone, both student and patient.
But there are risks involved. The primary one being that VR is not yet adapted to our human biology.
We don’t know the ramifications, in terms of eye health, that occur when one spend hours every day staring at a screen a few centimetres from our eyes. As well as this, there is the issue of desensitisation. This is a common issue that has plagued the gaming industry for a while. But whilst a degree of empathy and care is obviously important, a certain level of desensitisation is as well. Doctors have to deliver heart-breaking news, and perform life threatening operations every day. Without a degree of desensitisation, their job goes from hard to impossible, and, counterintuitively, becomes more dangerous for the patient.
Would you want your brain surgeon terrified at the complexity of their forthcoming task, or would you want them to just get on with the job at hand? Another potential problem is the necessary incorporation of big data. In order to have a versatile and accurate simulation, a lot of information, much of it personal medical information is required. This is a concern because it puts at risk people’s right to privacy, and risks doctor patient confidentiality.
This problem is averted by making it clear that information stored is used for training purposes only, completely anonymously, and will remain within the realm of medical education.