Although clinical adoption of VR remains slow and minimal, like many technologies out there, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic seems to hasten its use in a way that has never seen before. Some even said that they are beginning to use their VR devices again after leaving them idle for long.

VR medical training to meet staffing demands

For example, Oxford Medical Simulation (OMS), a company which offers virtual reality (VR) simulation training for healthcare professionals, will be providing their medical training system for free to facilities in the US, UK and Canada. This is to bring in more staff, especially retired physicians and nurses, to the healthcare system to care for more typical medical crises like strokes, heart attacks and fractures as specialists continue to treat coronavirus patients.

Since 16 March, about 50 hospitals and medical schools have accepted OMS’ free simulation training offer and near 17,000 medical professionals and students had signed up with the company to improve their clinical skills via immersive technology and be ready to help in medical institutions that hit hardest by coronavirus patients. The OMS simulation training was preloaded with about 100 different medical cases on its web-based portal and all medical professionals need is the internet, a laptop and a VR headset before they can embark on their training.

To mirror actual emergencies, trainees will not know beforehand what case they are about to deal with; they will have to follow the protocols: going through patients’ medical history; perform physical examinations, or consult fellow colleagues to determine what has happened to the patients. Unlike traditional training which employ mannequins or human actors, VR training is less costly, more realistic and can be repeated as and when the trainees required. Since all materials are made available online, this means many medical professionals can receive the same training at one go.

Making rounds of the wards and showing impacts of coronavirus

On the other hand, some medical workers from Yunan, a southwest Chinese province are using what known as the “5G + VR” visiting system (i.e., VR system supported by 5G technology) that has been in place at the isolation wards as their new communication channel, so that they can virtually monitor suspected coronavirus patients and their families.

In the US, physicians at George Washington University Hospital are using VR to take examine coronavirus patients’ lungs. In a simulation they posted on YouTube on 26 March, one can see the sharp contrast between healthy lung tissue (depicted in blue) and virus-infected lung tissue (depicted in yellow). Dr. Keith Mortman, Chief of the Thoracic Surgery Division said in a podcast produced by the hospital that with VR technology, one does not need a medical degree to comprehend how severe the amount of damage coronavirus is causing the lung tissue.

“The damage we’re seeing is not isolated to any one part of the lung. This is severe damage to both lungs diffusely… When that inflammation does not subside with time, then it becomes essentially scarring in the lungs, creating long-term damage. It could impact somebody’s ability to breathe in the long term” Dr. Mortman explains.

It’s unsure whether the recent boost in VR will fade off as the pandemic goes. After all, immersive technologies do face certain challenges such as limited literature support if a virtual experience is fully transferable to real-life experience and will there be side effects and so on. This alone has prevented medical professionals from trusting VR fully especially when it’s deployed to combat addiction and pain management.

Likewise, the lack of technical support within hospital setting cannot ascertain the technology can be properly maintained and scaled over the years. Particularly in the times of a viral outbreak, the VR equipment need to be routinely and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to minimize its risk from being a source of diseases. Unless the challenges can be overcome, the VR boost that we are witnessing right now may come and one with the pandemic.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.