Originally published on thriveglobal.com
The Web-enabled and interactive approach to medical education today is different from the Flexner-dominated approach of the 20th century. Less emphasis is currently placed on seminars while more attention is focused on learning through early clinical experience, virtual patients and other simulations. In this article, Dr. Joel Arun Sursas reviews current virtual reality (VR) training technology, examines the potential of VR technology and identifies the promises and dangers posed by VR use in medical education.
Current Virtual Reality Technology Used in Medical Training
VR technology provides training methods that are computer-generated simulations of actual training scenarios that have been traditionally used for training medical students in clinical environments. There are two basic categories of simulated training situations, augmented reality and VR.
Augmented reality uses images and sensory feedback that is imposed on real-world models. Augmented reality might use image overlays on manikins to simulate internal organs or surface conditions.
VR technology creates an entirely immersive and artificial reality wherein everything the user sees and interacts with are purely virtual images and sensory inputs. Leading medical schools are currently making extensive use of VR technology as part of ordinary coursework training. For example, Stanford University School of Medicine is using a VR platform to assist with surgical training. Students are able to use VR goggles to interact with and view images of human brains created from multiple brain scans, working with and manipulating three-dimensional images of actual brain structures. The VR experience serves as a prelude to working with actual brain structure studies from cadavers. The power of virtual dissection serves to provide more effective training when students are ready to take on working with actual physical structures. 
VR surgical training is a valuable tool for students and residents who have traditionally had deficiencies in independently performing surgeries even after years of residency training. VR provides a close approximation of hand-on training that is typically only experienced once on a cadaver before actual surgical practice begins.
Expected Future Trends in Medical Training with Virtual Reality Training
There are several areas of medical training that are expected to see expanded VR technology applications in the near future. All types of emergency training are likely to see expanded use of VR in training. For example, traditional CPR training has been limited to the capabilities provided by dummies. The use of VR can create much more varied and realistic training scenarios. With VR students can be placed in essentially any imaginable emergency condition making use of dummies and active feedback that simulate actual responses and other chosen environmental inputs. 
VR is also expected to provide substantial training in diagnosing conditions requiring surgery and in actively planning surgeries in advance. It is expected that VR technology will greatly expand the planning capabilities of experienced practicing surgeons as well as helping to train students and residents in assessing and creating surgical plans.
VR is proving to be especially valuable in assessing and treating neurological diseases and conditions such as Alzheimer’s in practice and in training. To the extent that VR becomes a more useful tool for actual practitioners, the scope of training that closely approximates real-life treatment in a no-risk academic setting is likely to become more prevalent.
The Prospects for Virtual Reality Technology in Medical Training: Promises and Dangers
VR technology is brimming with potential training applications in both general and specialized areas of medical training. Perhaps the area where VR offers the greatest academic value is in learning general anatomy. Fully immersive three-dimensional expositions of the human body can be manipulated, examined, and dissected in ways that are more responsive and precise than many exercises with cadavers, which are of course more limited in significant material ways. VR environments will allow for unlimited labeling, note placement, and magnification as compared to traditional cadaver-based training. 
VR training is also set to open up unlimited opportunities for peer learning from any geographic location. Peer learning provides greatly enhanced opportunities for group learning and problem-solving. Any number of users can join in lessons and clinical training exercises from anywhere in the world while receiving the benefit of multimedia learning that makes simultaneous use of clinical scenarios, whiteboard note-taking, collective conferencing, and essentially any other learning environment or technique. 
There are still some voices in medical training that are stressing caution and slow progress, however. One of the major concerns is that VR might overtake training curricula that are already under significant scheduling stress. Any new process or technique must displace something that already takes up space in the very limited time that traditional medical training is given.
Traditional training has always been based on interactive learning between students and professors, and more research and testing of VR technology is going to be necessary to determine the proper balance of medical training techniques. As long as the primary focus remains on outstanding learning processes and patient care, the advances that are rapidly occurring with VR technology should lead to creative ways to maximize the effectiveness of training and gaining experience during the limited time available to students and residents. 
About Dr. Joel Arun Sursas
Dr. Joel Arun Sursas is a Medical Doctor and Health Informatician who is motivated to solve administrative problems in healthcare. His primary focus is on developing technological advances between doctors and engineers to improve patient outcomes through improved monitoring while protecting patient privacy. His interest in the field of Medical Informatics emerged when he began working as a Project Officer for PACES — the Patient Care Enhancement System for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). At the SAF, Dr. Sursas’s collaborative efforts with other doctors and engineers facilitated the design and implementation of the largest Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system in Singapore, serving 53 medical centers.