Virtual Reality in Medicine – Many Changing Uses and Advantages

Virtuelle wirklichkeit techniques, involving three-dimensional imaging plus surround sound, are increasingly being used in diagnosis, treatment, and medical education. Preliminary applications of virtual reality in medicine involved visualization of the complex information sets generated by computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. A recent application of these techniques for diagnostic purposes has been the particular “virtual colonoscopy, ” in which information from a contrast-enhanced abdominal CT scan is used to make a “fly-through” of the colon. Radiologists then use this fly-through intended for colon cancer screening. Recent improvements in methodology have brought the sensitivity and specificity of this method closer to the levels of optical colonoscopy, and patients prefer the technique to the traditional method.

Virtual reality has also been used extensively to treat phobias (such as an anxiety about heights, flying and spiders) and post-traumatic stress disorder. This type of treatment has been shown to be effective in the academic setting, and several commercial entities now offer it to patients. In one of my projects using the multi-user virtuelle wirklichkeit environment offered by Second Life, one of several easily available online virtual reality environments, we have used a virtual psychosis atmosphere to teach medical students about the oral and visual hallucinations suffered by patients with schizophrenia.

Virtual reality has been used to provide medical education about healthcare responses to emergencies such as earthquakes, plane crashes and fires. While the primary advantage in anxiety treatment is a “safe environment” which usually patients can explore, the primary advantage in emergency preparedness is simulation of events that are either too rare or too dangerous to get effective real-world training. The immersive nature of the virtual reality experience helps you to recreate the sense of emergency or panic associated with these occasions.

Virtual reality programs have also been used for a variety of medical emergency, mass casualty, plus disaster response training sessions for medical and public health professionals. One study developed a protocol for training doctors to treat victims of chemical-origin bulk casualties as well as victims of biological agents using simulated patients.

Although it was found that using standardized patients for such training has been more realistic, the computer-based simulations afforded a number of advantages over the live training. These included increased affordability, the opportunity to conduct the same training sessions again and again to improve skills, and the ability to make use of “just-in-time” learning techniques and go through the training session at any time and location, whilst adjusting the type and level of expertise required to use the training for various emergency response professionals. Others have discovered the potential for training emergency responders regarding major health emergencies using virtual reality. Their objective was to increase contact with life-like emergency situations to improve decision-making and performance and reduce psychological stress in a real health emergency.

Experience of recent natural disasters and terrorist acts has shown that good communication and coordination between responders is vital to an effective response. In my work making use of Second Life to develop a digital mass disaster emergency clinic to hand out antibiotics to the population carrying out a massive anthrax bioterrorism attack, we now have found a number of important advantages of the particular virtual world, over the real world, with regard to training first responders.

Responders in order to such events come from many different organizations, including fire, police, military, plus hospital personnel. There are three major difficulties in training and evaluating these first responders in the real life:

1 . They have little or no chance to teach together before the event occurs and hence lack teamwork skills.
2 . What training they may have had comes with great cost, in large part due to the hard work and need to transport so many people to some specific training site at a particular time.
3. The training sites frequently cannot be the most common targets – for example , one cannot shut down the Golden Gate Bridge during rush hr to train for an earthquake or terror scenario.

Virtual reality offers some intriguing advantages over the real world for these aspects of first responder training, as all the above difficulties can be overcome.
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Virtual reality systems can support multiple simultaneous customers, each connecting to the system making use of standard office personal computers and internet broadband access. Lifelike models of buildings, streets, bridges, and other natural and man-made structures where the users can socialize can be constructed.

Finally, the whole situation can be digitally preserved and a complete workflow analysis can be performed retrospectively. General public health officials and first-responders can work through the scenarios as many times as they prefer to familiarize themselves with the workflow and emergency protocols, without encumbering the time and expense of organizing a mock emergency in real life.

Virtual Reality treatments are rapidly becoming more accessible. They are currently being used to treat post-traumatic stress disorders caused by wartime experiences, and US servicemen are now significantly being offered such programs. Rather than the traditional method of confronting old nightmares, on-line technology is able to deliver treatment inside a far more therapeutic and humane method. Patients are “transported” to the battlefront and fears and traumas are resolved in virtual place and real time. Virtual Reality is here to stay, and can increasingly be used widely in a number of parts of healthcare.