Virtual reality is a collection of technologies that enable people to use their senses to experience sensory input provided from a source other than the immediate environment. These events may occur in real time, can be a simulation, or can be completely fictional. Virtual reality (VR) has progressed beyond its military beginnings and is progressively making its way into people’s daily lives. The most prevalent implementation of VR can be found in many forms of modern entertainment such as computer games or IMAX (image maximum) theaters. VR has received little publicity but has enormous potential in the realm of medicine. The utility of VR is starting to be appreciated by the medical community. It is slowly being adopted and implemented in the surgical, medical, and psychiatric specialties. Medical uses of VR are primarily directed toward the simulation of visual, audio, and tactile input. With the aid of VR doctors will be able to perform specialized surgery on a patient from the other side of the world. Students are able to simulate and experience surgical procedures without compromising a patient’s health. Finally, VR can heighten a doctor´s senses and allows input that would be absent without the aid of VR, such as relative bone positions and tissue temperature.
Surgery is especially conducive to the use of VR due to the spatial nature of the specialty. VR is currently being used most notably for laparoscopic procedures, but also for trauma, orthopedics, obstetrics/gynecology, and minor procedures such as colonoscopies. VR may soon allow specialized surgeries to be performed by leading specialists remotely. Student training may also be improved through VR. Meta-analysis has shown that first training physicians on simulators significantly increases skill and decrease the length of time required for novices to perform true surgery (Haque & Srinivasan, 2006).
Laparoscopic surgery is a relatively new technique which is still being expanded and refined. In place of making a large surgical incision, several small surgical openings are made and instruments are passed through these openings. The surgery is guided by a camera passed through one of the incisions. Laparoscopic surgery has the advantage of leaving much smaller surgical incisions and damaging the body less than in traditional surgery. Unfortunatly, it is a much more complicated technique and years of additional training may be required. Due to the three-dimensional nature of laparoscopic surgery, VR has been developed for this technique earlier than for other specialties. SimMentor is one of the earliest VR programs available in medicine and is currently being used to teach surgeons laparoscopic techniques (Rotnes, Kaasa, Westgaard, Erikson, Hvidsten, Strom et al., 2002). This minimizes the risks to patients while allowing physicians in training to practice and perfect their abilities.
Trauma medicine is a unique field in which multiple medical problems must be assessed and prioritized in an exceptionally short period of time. Lack of proper training or experience can result in loss of life or increased morbidity. VR programs have been developed to simulate trauma situations. One of the available software simulators is called Trauma-Teach (Ong, Vijayan, Koh, Lai, Lim, Loke et al., 2005). Trauma-Teach is an interactive VR program in which a patient can be selected from a trauma database. The virtual patient must be stabilized, less than obvious medical conditions diagnosed, and proper medical and surgical therapy initiated. The simulator is designed to respond to therapy as would a real patient under the given set of circumstances. Trauma-teach and like programs are relatively recent developments and their effectiveness as teaching tools have yet to be fully evaluated. They are likely to be successful in teaching lifesaving skills to novice physicians preparing them for effective and successful patient management in the trauma setting.