Med Students Turn to VR During Pandemic

Nurse, pass the goggles

Key Takeaways

  • Medical students are turning to virtual reality training during the coronavirus pandemic as social distancing precautions means they are spending less time with patients. 
  • VR can simulate everything from diagnosing patients to practicing surgery. 
  • Some medical students say that using video games prepared them to learn in virtual reality.
Student using VR in a lab setting.
Andrew Brookes / Getty Images

Medical students are increasingly trading stethoscopes for virtual reality goggles during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Due to social distancing measures, doctors in training are being kept out of classrooms and away from patients. But medical schools are making up for the lack of hands-on time by offering education through the use of VR simulations. Students can practice everything from diagnosing patients to surgery.

"The pandemic forced all medical students out of hospital environments for a few months and thus the usual way of teaching clinical medicine changed overnight," Dr. Darrin D’Agostino, executive dean of Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, said in an email interview.

"In order to continue to learn clinical applications of the knowledge the students learned in the classrooms, we began using VR to help get as close to life-like experiences to continue the clinical rotations the students are obligated to participate in during their third and fourth years of medical school."

At Kansas City University, like many medical schools around the country, students have had to curtail visiting patients due to COVID-19. Students attend some classes remotely and are replacing some of their clinical experience with VR. 

Gaming for Lives

VR for medical students offers the realism and intensity of cutting-edge video games. Medical schools often use consumer VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift or the Vive with software that’s made for medical simulations. However, the outcome of these sims can help student doctors make life-or-death decisions when they graduate.

"By creating an immersive environment, learners and trainees can be placed into a variety of situations—from the operating room to a medical clinic, to a patient’s home—all with a single headset," Dr. Warren Wiechmann, an assistant professor and associate dean at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, said in an email interview. "As the pandemic has created logistical difficulties for education, VR could be a powerful tool to address these challenges."

Like video games, VR medical training offers the obvious benefit of being able to hit reset if an operation goes wrong. "Practice makes perfect," Jaime Weber, a Kansas City University medical student who has used VR in school, said in an email interview.

"There are no limitations on the number of attempts for a given medical scenario. The medical student has the opportunity to repeat scenarios until they feel confident they have acquired the learning objectives for a given simulation."

VR training can translate into real skills. One recent study found that medical students who were given VR training for a bone fracture procedure received significantly higher assessment scores and completed 38% more steps correctly than those in the traditionally trained group.

Med students who give VR a try are enthusiastic about donning goggles. A nationwide study found the majority of medical students using VR during the pandemic thought the training was useful as a replacement for in-person instruction. 

Even for doctors who’ve already graduated from medical school, VR is proving helpful for training during the pandemic. At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, VR training has been expanded by working with educational technology company Virti, which uses a combination of VR, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence for training ranging from mindfulness and resilience courses to COVID-19 surge response. 

A medical student interacting with a VR Headset.
Charday Penn / Getty Images 

"We've found it very valuable to observe a doctor's thinking process and it's all been done with social distancing," Russell Metcalfe-Smith, director of the Women’s Guild Simulation Center for Advanced Clinical Skills at Cedars-Sinai, told Forbes. "Because we can't get large groups together right now, we've had to rely on technology to give the same experience. The simulations provide a feeling of presence and it feels like you are in a room with a patient."

Treating a Sim

VR training can be incredibly realistic. Brandon Bishop, a medical student at Kansas City University, recently used VR during a class where he mimicked treating a patient in the emergency room who arrived with a cough and chest pain. Bishop’s first task was to stabilize the patient. In VR, he gave him fluids for hypotension, oxygen hypoxemia and analgesics for the pain, and increased heart rate. 

Next, Bishop had to work with team members to discover the cause of the ailment and treat it. The patient ended up having a case of community-acquired pneumonia on top of taking prescribed steroids to suppress his immune system after a kidney transplant.

"I was able to start forming patterns in my head that I believe will help me in reality," Bishop said in an email interview. "While I do not believe this is entirely representative of reality, I think VR helps form many helpful habits."

He continued, "For example, a vision of how a patient may present in the real world, treatment patterns, and the understanding that at any given time, one aspect of treatment may supersede another, such as stabilizing a patient in the ER with oxygen before treating the underlying cause."

For a generation raised on video games, shifting to VR medical training is a natural transition. Bishop described himself as an avid gamer but said "as with any gaming system, becoming familiar with the controls may take a few minutes."

He added, "The hand controllers have many buttons, and this can take a few minutes to make sure you understand what each does. However, after learning them, they become second nature, especially if a person uses peripherals with other types of games." 

See but You Can’t Feel

As true-to-life as VR can be, it isn’t going to replace hands-on experience with patients anytime soon, experts say. For one thing, there are technical challenges before VR begins to fully simulate what can happen in a doctor’s office or emergency room. 

"The technology is limited in creating realistic touch and haptic feedback or smell," Greg Dorsainville, manager of AR/VR at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said in an email interview. "We are still far away from the hyper-realism of Star Trek's holodeck, which portrays completely believable virtual environments and with robust artificial intelligence."

Doctors wearing VR googles with a nurse standing nearby.
 Sorrorwoot Chaiyawong / EyeEm / Getty Images

Another drawback is that there’s still a dearth of content for medical education, observers say. "Some schools and programs have taken a leap into developing their own VR and 360-video content," Wiechmann said. "However, this requires a specialized skill set that is not typical in medical schools, training programs, or clinical IT departments."

VR also lacks "some of the unpredictability that real-life medicine will occasionally throw at you," Weber said. "Although VR should be a part of the future of training medical professionals, it should be blended with traditional training rather than being the entire experience."

While VR may not replace working with real patients, it is rapidly expanding for medical education. And the use of VR makes it possible to teach at vast distances. This fall, Stanford Medicine professors in California are teaching anatomy to medical students in Kenya using virtual reality. They will remotely guide students through three-dimensional images of organs and dissections.

The effort is part of a pilot project to educate medical students in under-resourced schools. To learn anatomy, medical students dissect cadavers to learn the intricacies of the human body, but those in under-resourced settings often don’t have enough cadavers due to the expense and cultural norms.

"Many medical schools around the world lack resources for teaching anatomy," said Dr. Sakti Srivastava, chief of clinical anatomy at Stanford, said in a press release. "Something like this VR program can make a huge difference."  

Medical training in VR is getting a push forward due to the pandemic. While it may not replace time spent with live patients, the technology is advancing and it’s likely in the future more students will be studying with headsets.

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