Virtual reality is creating new opportunities for healthcare providers to better understand the human body. New technologies being used in some hospitals and medical schools, including UCLA, will allow doctors to see three-dimensional pictures produced by imaging equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound, as well as interface with what is pictured as if it were real.

At UCLA, almost 1,500 patients were diagnosed with prostate cancer using virtual reality technology, improving the diagnosis accuracy by more than 300%, said Erik Dutson, MD, a surgeon at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

“VR gives a very immersive way of looking at all this data,” says Sandeep Gupta, manager of Biomedical Image Analysis at GE Global Research, a division of General Electric Co., which is integrating virtual reality into its current imaging equipment. “Doctors may be able to see which brain regions are affected by a neurodegenerative disease, for example, or which neural pathways information and signals are flowing through.”

Peyman Benharash, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said, “One of the things we have to do as surgeons is to see in three dimensions. Using virtual reality technology, surgeons can build a three-dimensional model of the patient’s anatomy based on a patient’s CT scan. The model can then be used to identify the injury or area of concern. After the damage is localized, surgeons can rehearse the surgical steps required before the operation takes place.”

As reported in a Wall Street Journal article, one of the most promising applications of virtual reality may be in medical education and training. Universities can choose to work with virtual reality instead of enduring the cost of storing cadavers. “Virtual reality has a clear advantage there because you can see a true 3-D body, and you can even practice on it because there’s full feedback,” says Bin Chen, a researcher at Purdue University who has studied the use of virtual-reality technologies in medical settings. Devices such as virtual-reality viewers, styluses and other tools that provide a feeling of resistance will provide realistic simulation for medical students.

When virtual reality was applied in a real life setting at Stanford University Medical Center by pediatric surgeons, they found that surgeons and radiologists were able to develop more accurate surgical plans in 40% less time, says Frandics Chan, who led the Stanford trial. “It’s a difficult surgery that requires precise mapping of pulmonary vessels, typically done using pen and paper.”

The use of virtual reality tools in the healthcare setting is clearly on the rise and time will tell how healthcare can unlock and implement its full potential.

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