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Medical VR Training: Proven to Improve Skills and Confidence

By Taylor Freeman

The virtual reality industry has developed rapidly over the last decade thanks to the billions of dollars invested by the world’s largest tech companies. Due to the perfect storm of next-generation VR hardware and pandemic lockdowns, the industry saw hockey stick growth following the release of the Oculus Quest 2 all-in-one VR headset in October 2020. It’s become abundantly clear that medical VR training is an indispensable tool, and with every new VR study that’s published, it gets harder to imagine a future where flat-screens continue to be the dominant form of digital learning. With the global learning market valued at over $7 Trillion, and the rapidly expanding digital learning market projected to be $1 Trillion by 2027, there’s no turning back at this point.
There are too many benefits of usingVR for training to pack into a single short form blog post, so I went ahead and picked seven of the most pertinent:

Recreating real-world scenarios:Virtual reality enables us to create any environment imaginable. We can simulate any situation, pause it, replay it infinitely, and have control over time and space in ways that simply aren’t possible in the physical world. Imagine a high-risk procedure that is prohibitively dangerous to practice in real-life, or something that requires expensive or fragile machinery. You can simulate everything with medical VR training to get your reps in, so when the time eventually comes to practice in real-life, you’re ready and can avoid costly mistakes.

Experiential and hands-on learning:
Unlike flat screen learning, where information is abstracted down to two dimensions then consumed passively, virtual reality enables us to physically interact with our learning content. Take our VR PPE training for example. In a traditional digital learning environment, you might look at a PDF or watch a video on your computer or mobile device. Then if you’re lucky, your LMS will have an integrated set of questions to gauge whether or not you were paying attention. Does this actually translate into being able to perform the procedure? Maybe, but definitely not certainly. Whereas if you’re learning in virtual reality, you are physically required to go through each step as if it were real life. In VR, there is no way to pass the final exam, which consists of physically performing the procedure, unless you actually know how to do it step by step. Of course there is nuance to this and VR has its limitations when it comes to haptics in particular, but for sequence driven skills it’s a complete game changer (we’ll discuss this in more depth in the studies highlighted toward the end of this post).

Reduced operational costs:
Think about the amount of instructor time, physical equipment, scheduling, logistics, and other overhead that can be reduced by virtualizing everything. You can have the equivalent of a multimillion dollar medical facility in your backpack, accessible from anywhere with Wifi (even sometimes without Wifi). As we’ll see in the studies below, VR has been shown to reduce cost by upwards of 3,400% for some advanced surgical procedures. At Axon Park, we’ve seen our clients save more than 1,000% by switching to virtual PPE medical VR training. On top of this, people generally enjoy it more, and it significantly reduces the burden on physicians and other medical staff to leave the frontlines to train others.

Superior analytics & accountability:
Imagine for a moment that you have 10 students in a room with one instructor, all learning a new surgical procedure. The instructor performs a sequence-driven demo at the front of the room, then asks the students in attendance to physically repeat the sequence at their own station (which also requires having a bunch of expensive physical equipment and space). The instructor now scans the room to see how everyone is doing, maybe even walks around to check in with each student directly. 30 minutes later, you ask the instructor how each student performed. How was their exact technique? How long did it take them to complete each step? Where did they make errors? Were they able to complete the procedure all the way through? It’s highly likely they wouldn’t be able to answer these questions with certainty unless they somehow had secret cameras setup in the room, or 10 pairs of eyes and some incredible multitasking abilities. With medical VR training, given the motion tracking capabilities of the headset and hand controllers, you can record all of this data with ease and store it in an LMS that gets saved forever. What’s more, you can run advanced machine learning on the data to identify the exact areas in which the students can improve and where they are most likely to make mistakes. This is not to say that human instructors should be replaced, certainly not, but they should use the tools they now have accessible to enhance their ability to teach, thus improving outcomes.

Learn from anywhere:
Just for fun, let’s imagine you’re a 4th year medical student and we’re exploring two scenarios.

Scenario A, in-person learning: You wake up at 6:00 am, change out of your pajamas, take a shower and get coiffed, scramble to make breakfast, get in the car, hit traffic on your 60 minute commute in the rain, struggle to find parking, eventually give in and pay $10 for the nearby lot, run across the quad, realize you left your student ID in the car, run back, finally get to the chemistry classroom (late, soaking wet, and out of breath), grab the only open seat, which happens to be at the back of the room next to Sammy who keeps spitting on you as he sporadically laughs at TikTok videos, then finally realize you’ve left your laptop charger at home. You can barely see the slides or hear anything. You’re struggling to keep your eyes open because you only got five hours of sleep thanks to your 60 minute commute. Thankfully your phone keeps buzzing with notifications, which wakes you up for just a moment as you’ve been dozing off mid-lecture. Then boom, class is over and you have no idea what was even discussed. If you’re lucky, this is one of those days where all of your classes are back to back so you can go home for lunch instead of eating McDonnald’s on the street corner. Then after two more equally unengaging classes, you get an iced coffee on the way back to your car. You choose iced coffee because it’s easier to chug while praying you don’t fall asleep at the wheel. You finally make it home only to find that your dog has let loose on the living room carpet because it took you so long to get back. Okay, I think you get the point…

Scenario B, remote VR learning. You wake up at 7:00 am, make yourself a nice cup of coffee and hot breakfast, walk 15 steps over to your desk, put on your VR headset, log in to the visually stunning virtual campus (aka Axon Park), then kick off a course where you’re learning chemistry while standing on the surface of a cell. After an hour of experiential and hands-on learning building molecules from scratch, you virtually wave goodbye to your fellow classmates, place the headset back on your desk, make yourself a nice lunch, then take your dog for a walk in the park.

Wow, what are you going to do with all that extra time and money you’ve just saved? Maybe spend it with your significant other or kids, take care of an elderly parent, pick up the guitar, paint, who knows, but it sure beats sitting in traffic or next to Sammy.

Ability to make mistakes:
In VR, you have an unlimited number of do-overs. If you mistakenly slip while practicing on a cadaver, better luck next time. It’s not quite as bad with a mannequin, but it can still require significant effort to get things back to normal. In a virtual training environment, you can simply click retry, and voila, 100% fresh start. Of course the medical VR training can’t fully take the place of using a physical object with realistic density and resistance (yet), but much like learning to fly in a flight simulator, you can learn the sequence, technique and overall process virtually. Once it comes time to perform the procedure on a cadaver or expensive mannequin, you’ll know what you’re doing. VR is an incredible tool for learning sequence, process and decision making, yet to reiterate, it does have weaknesses that need to be supplemented by in-person training (which you were going to do anyway, so no excuses there).

Higher engagement:
Going back to our friend in Scenario A and B above, if she hadn’t had her cell phone constantly buzzing in her pocket waking her up, there is a good chance she would have slept through the entire class. In this case the buzzing was helpful, but if you look at most modern in-person classrooms, they all have a few things in common, a lot of scrolling on Instagram, twiddling fingers tweeting and students distracted by the seemingly all-important and never ending flood of notifications. VR provides a sanctuary from distraction. We are in what I like to call the Golden Window of VR during which time, the major social platforms haven’t yet infiltrated the UI with real-time notifications. I’d predict we have at least a couple more years of this glorious distraction-free window, and I’m hopeful that the culture around virtual notification filtering will continue far longer into the future.

Now that we’ve covered some of the core benefits, let’s take a look at some studies published over the last few years focused on medical VR training.

Medical VR Studies

One of my favorites comes from the Imperial College of London, Johnson & Johnson and OssoVR. They showed that 83% of surgeons trained in VR were able to perform a surgery in a lab setting with minimal guidance, whereas none of the traditionally trained surgeons were able to do the same. Both groups of students had the same amount of time to learn, study and practice. 83% vs 0% is a huge difference, no matter who you ask. On top of this, the VR trained students were 12° more accurate in component orientation as compared with the traditionally trained group.
Next up is a study that just came out a few weeks ago from PrecisionOS. I really like this company. They are taking a very high-fidelity approach to medical VR training content and it’s honestly some of the best I’ve seen. “The study demonstrated a nearly 50% reduction in surgical errors when surgeons trained (in VR) with PrecisionOS™. Additional findings include how VR Training reduced the learning curve by up to 50 cases, substituted nearly an hour of actual surgical time, and is at a minimum 34x less expensive than traditional learning methods.”

Okay hold on a sec, the surgeons made ½ the number of mistakes and it cost 3,400% less than traditional learning methods? How could the world ever look back after seeing something like this? Sure there are details around the physical sensations involved with the procedure, but it’s a pretty incredible way to get most of the way there. “VR Surgery Training is scalable, cost-effective, and now shown to be highly effective in skill transfer. With COVID detouring surgical training, VR options from companies such as PrecisionOS will become the new training standard for decades to come.” said Taha Jangda, General Partner at HealthX Ventures

Another study worth mentioning is from SAGES (The Society Of American Gastrointestinal And Endoscopic Surgeons), in which VR improved performance by 250%. The experience was focused on OR fire training simulation and “70% of the simulation group subjects were able to perform the correct sequence of steps in extinguishing the simulated fire whereas only 20% of subjects in the control group were able to do so. Interactive VR-based hands-on training was found to be a relatively inexpensive and effective mode for teaching OR fire prevention and management scenarios.” So not only was it effective and inexpensive, but it also didn’t require lighting the OR on fire, which I’d say is a relatively important detail. As mentioned above, VR is truly groundbreaking for training that is prohibitively dangerous and/or unrealistic to do IRL.

To top this all off, Dr. Narendra Kini, the CEO at Miami Children’s Health System, said the retention level a year after a VR training session can be as much as 80 percent, compared to 20 percent retention after a week with traditional training. 80% compared to 20% would already be impressive if it were over the same timeframe, but 4x higher retention 52x farther into the future? How can you even compete with that? “We believe there are numerous opportunities where repetitive training and skill set maintenance are critical for outcomes,” said Kini. “Since there are not enough patients in many cases to maintain these skill sets, virtual reality is a real addition to the arsenal. Imagine also scenarios where we need to practice for accreditation and or compliance. In these situations, virtual reality is a god-send.” Dr. Kini knows!

We’re breeding a whole new generation of superhuman learners and it’s such an exciting time to be at the precipice of this transformation. I love it when people say “VR is just a fad, smartphones and video are just fine. Spatial computing will never catch on”. I just have a quiet chuckle to myself then graciously remind them that they can virtually project 50 smart phones in VR if they’d like, and toss up a few movie theater sized screens in the background while they’re at it. It just doesn’t make any logical sense to keep computing in 2d when we now have the computing power and focus of the world’s largest companies pushing spatial displays as the next platform. I think a lot of people, looking back on this time, won’t be able to believe they used to use a “flatty” for computing. Especially the young kids who grow up VR natives.

To wrap things up, I hope this has given you some food for thought and insights into the VR ecosystem, especially as it pertains to medical VR training. This new move to virtual is as real as it gets. This technology is here to stay and with the flood of new studies, hardware and software hitting the market, this new reality will be mainstream before we know it.

To quote one of my favorites, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed” – William Gibson