To respect the ethical principle of “never once on the patient,” simulation in various forms has been an integral part of the training of healthcare professionals in North America for several decades. Virtual reality appears to be the chosen technology of the future to ensure the acquisition of a wide range of practical and experiential learning necessary for these professionals’ initial and ongoing training. Here are five points that will shed light on the potential of VR for medical education.
A powerful simulation technology
Virtual reality is a fascinating technology that allows users to immerse themselves in a dynamic, adaptive, 3D, 360-degree synthetic world in which they can move and interact with tactile and sensory feedback by simply wearing a headset and using haptic gloves or controllers. VR makes it possible to create realistic or unrealistic universes and to integrate customized scenarios. Thanks to artificial intelligence, VR can have this adaptive and predictive aspect, more personalized and alive. Its first strength is immersion, and the second is presence (shortened from “telepresence”). The latter can be defined as the sensation of being physically present in the virtual environment, perceiving it as real and forgetting the technology that gives it life and the underlying real world. Presence promotes immersion. Of all the high-fidelity medical simulation technologies, it is by far the most powerful in convincing the user’s brain that they are indeed in a universe of their own and in generating sensations and emotions of the intensity of those felt in a real context.
Training with increased possibilities
For training purposes, VR offers the opportunity of recreating a wide variety of professional environments and tasks that learners can practice in complete safety and freedom from the judgment of others until they are fully mastered. It is ideal for practicing skills required in environments that are complex to replicate, remote, or involve some degree of danger. With its multiplayer feature, VR opens the door to peer learning and teamwork, where multiple users can come together in the same virtual world and interact with each other and the environment. With this boundary-breaking feature, a learner can be supervised by an expert anywhere in the world or join a group at a distant university to learn a new approach. This technology also meets today’s learners’ need for flexibility and autonomy, giving them access to hyper-sophisticated distance learning that requires little set-up time and practice space.
Valuable assets for medical education
The integration of VR in medical training is not intended to replace the theoretical part of teaching given in class nor to take the place of the expert teacher when their supervision is desirable. As far as the simulation component is concerned, some pedagogical objectives are better served in a real context, and others do not require immersion in a complex situation. That said, in general, while practical learning tends to replace rote learning (when possible), the teaching of certain notions would benefit from being transferred to virtual reality. This is the case, for example, with anatomy lessons, which this technology can present in a much more precise, global and attractive way than more conventional media can. Thus, rather than having to learn by looking at a two-dimensional image, VR allows the learner to explore at will the different parts of the human body in 3D and see the metabolic processes in action. Note that powerful computer programs are required to reproduce accurate 3D images by merging the results of two-dimensional images from MRI scanners, ultrasound scans and CT scans. It is even possible to recreate a patient’s “digital twin” in VR based on their imaging results and clinical data. Virtual reality is ideal for learning to master technical gestures, such as certain surgical procedures, as well as for learning to manipulate various tools and medical devices. It is also very useful for practitioners to become familiar with new equipment or to integrate new care techniques.
A tool for practice, training customization, evaluation and more
Among the great strengths of virtual reality for medical training is the fact that it offers optimal conditions for maximizing the competence of practitioners without jeopardizing patient safety. In this sense, this technology represents an ideal playground: it not only allows the learner to make mistakes and practice as long as necessary to master a skill and develop good reflexes, but it also corrects them thoroughly in real-time. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that this immediate feedback, this return on error, is a crucial step for effective learning. In addition, VR has the advantage of collecting data on user behaviour and performance, allowing for precise adjustment and personalization of training. An important point to emphasize is that this function is also relevant for evaluating the skills of a future practitioner or for revalidating those of a current practitioner. VR can, therefore, also be used in certification, recertification and hiring processes.
Usefulness beyond technical skills
Virtual reality also lends itself to the development of non-technical skills, which are also essential in diagnostic and therapeutic interventions. To this end, it is possible to recreate different care environments and a range of situations in which health professionals are called upon to intervene. For example, a virtual ward can be recreated in which the learner will have to interact with several avatars – patients, colleagues, and patient’s families – in scenarios where the typical activity and rhythm of a hospital are also reproduced. This type of exercise aims to sharpen the learner’s clinical reasoning, interpersonal and communication skills, critical thinking and decision-making abilities while allowing them to manage stress better and increase self-confidence in such contexts. This type of training allows the learner to train in all stages of his future practice: they can question their patient about their situation, evaluate them, make a diagnosis and then treat them. Finally, by allowing the learner to take on the role of another avatar – that of a patient, a member of the patient’s family or a colleague – VR can help the learner develop more empathy towards those they work with and thus have a better understanding of the issues they face. It should be noted that empathy is increasingly considered in medicine as a communication skill that should be at the heart of the patient-doctor relationship.