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Science Fiction No More - Medical Simulation embraces Virtual and Augmented Reality

Depending on how broad you want to define the word ‘simulation’ there are examples of simulations all around us. A simulation could be high tech, computerized and complicated; Or it could be a simple play with props and actors such as standardized patients re-enacting a situation. Kramer does it really well in Seinfeld. With the rapid advancement of technology, we are now seeing new forms of simulations. In 2010, the first prototype of a Virtual Reality (VR) headset was designed by Oculus Rift. Although the technology is nearly 10 years old, VR is recently being implemented into training platforms in the medical field. These new mediums for education and training can mean big changes for how future doctors and nurses learn and perform their trade.

Virtual Reality in Medical Simulation

Have you ever heard of a game called Surgeon Simulator? It is a virtual reality video game where you play as a Surgeon (as the title implies). The game is not serious at all. In fact, it is a darkly humorous, entertaining game where you are given different objectives to complete such as a heart transplant or removing a kidney. Using controllers that detect your arm motions, you can pick up different tools and, literally, hammer away (at their ribs so that you can reach the persons heart). The game doesn’t take itself very seriously, but you can clearly see how something like this can be used in the future for training purposes. There’s no risks involved and the only costs to experience this simulation is the headset, the hand controls, and the game itself. Virtual Reality Medical Simulations as an educational and a therapeutic tool is on the rise. These Serious Games are being used in classroom settings to increase interactivity and engagement with students.

Outside of the educational field, Medical Simulation Virtual Reality is being used as a medium for Therapy and Practice. Virtual Reality has had great impact in healthcare industry. There are facilities that are using VR to assist the elderly to help them walk, or the allow them to experience scenarios they normally cannot experience anymore. Some VR programs are used to immerse children into fun scenarios before they receive something “scary” and “painful” like a flu shot . There are even cases where “patients are using virtual reality as an alternative to anesthetics during surgical operations”. Due to its immersive capabilities, patients become so distracted with their virtual surroundings that they only need local anesthetics to deal with painful surgery. Adding VR to the medical equation can result in cheaper solutions for both providers and patients.

Augmented Reality in Medical Simulation

Augmented Reality is a relatively new technology that is gaining attention in the training field. For those who are not aware, Augmented Reality is technology that uses a device to capture your surroundings and then project computer-generated images onto the medium you are using to view the real world. The medium could be a headset, a computer, or even your phone. The key difference between Augmented Reality medical simulations and Virtual Reality simulations is that you still interact with your real-life environment. If you wanted to, you could use an actor or standardized patient and project a realistic wound on their body.

We’ve seen how popular AR technology can be back in 2016 when Pokémon Go released for mobile devices. In 2014, a company named SimX constructed Medical Augmented Reality training software. The software projects patients that you can interact with on whatever surface you are working with. You are able to work with others as you work with a patient and ask them questions, use tools and charts to check their vital signs, and even perform emergency actions. The best part about the software is that it uses your android smartphone and $20 headset which is 1/30 the cost of current medical simulation technology. For example, high-fidelity manikins can cost up to $100,000 and require trained Sim Operators to set-up, maintain and operate. On the other hand, software can be fine-tuned and upgraded at any time. Currently, AR medical simulations is being considered for use in plastic surgery. The AR system can help in planning and confirming reconstruction. The 3D simulation of the body surface will provide a visual reference of the final appearance.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology present a cheap, engaging solution to education. According to Healthy Simulation, medical simulation is the experiential learning every healthcare professional will need, but cannot always engage in during real-life patient care. Medical Simulation is utilized to practice patient safety, cognitive thinking, team based communication, and skills based action necessary during a life or death situation. VR and AR technology are not yet perfect. Standardized Patients are able to give you realistic one on one communication experience and reactions. Manikins allow you to touch and feel what you are working with. Some VR and AR simulations have feedback on their controllers to simulate making contact with an object, but it’s not exactly the same as interacting with a real person or object. Technology has been growing so quickly, that we may start experiencing the ability to touch and feel computer generated simulations. It wasn’t long ago when current technology was thought of as unrealistic science fiction. Being in the field of Simulation has allowed me to see this industry grow to what it is today. The technological leaps that are being made every day makes predicting what simulations look like in the next 10 years impossible. Upgrades in wearable technology and the testing of embedding chips in our brains seems like sci fi, but it no longer is. It’s really exciting thinking of what medical simulations could become in the near future.