Virtual reality and 3D screens have done wonders for entertainment and gaming. Without leaving the living room, gaming enthusiasts can mimic the experience of shooting pool, scuba diving, flying a plane, dressing up as Batman to battle villains, going into outer space, and climbing Mount Everest.
Along with using technology for fun, virtual reality (VR) and 3D imaging are having meaningful impacts on the world of medicine and healthcare. These technologies are helping physicians better prepare for surgeries, explain diagnoses to patients, and train for their profession.
It is not an overstatement to say that VR and 3D will save lives. It’s likely they already have.
The majority of medical imaging today is presented in two dimensions. As amazing as MRIs and CT scans are, their display in 2D requires physicians to use their imaginations to mentally stitch together paper-thin images and picture how they fit together in a 3D human being. It’s a difficult and tedious process, and it’s far from perfect. The problem is simply that hearts, kidneys, livers, brains, lungs, and other organs and body parts do not exist in two dimension. But for years, that’s as far as medical imaging displays could go.
New tech to help prepare for surgery
New technology has made it possible to take those thin slices of MRI pictures and visualize them together as a 3D image that a physician can examine with 3D glasses or a VR headset like kids use for video games. The surgeon can view the area where she’s about to operate from different angles—move, turn, and closely examine the surrounding organs and tissue. It’s superior to a model or cadaver because it is specific to that patient. Such superior 3D images can dramatically reduce the time needed to prepare for and conduct a surgical procedure.
“Anything a doctor can do to better prepare before a surgery and shorten the time the patient is under anesthesia will benefit the patient’s ability to bounce back,” said Jason Salber, a radiologist at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, and proponent of 3D imaging technology. “This could be a real game-changer.”
Silicon Valley-based startup EchoPixel is just one example of a company pioneering virtual reality for healthcare applications. Its technology creates interactive 3D visualizations as opposed to static 2D displays. When viewed, images of body parts appear to float in midair in full 3D form. Remember what Princess Leia looked like calling for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s help in Star Wars? That’s what EchoPixel’s True 3D Viewer, powered by the HP Zvr Display, looks like—but in color and high definition.
Wearing passive 3D glasses, physicians can now prepare for a surgery by examining the patient’s exact anatomy. They can use a stylus to move different body parts around, adjust cut planes, and even practice removing a tumor or piece of infected tissue.
Virtual reality and 3D imaging removes much of the guesswork for physicians and can help reduce the chance of a surprise in the operating room. One of the biggest threats during surgery is the physician accidentally cutting a vein or artery that they didn’t realize was there. With these new technologies, physicians can see where these threats are beforehand.
The technology also is starting to have a huge impact on imaging of the abdominal area, which has been hard to visualize because so many organs of different densities are packed into such a small area. The parts move with every breath and contraction of the intestinal muscles. If a patient suffering from an inflamed colon needs to have tissue removed, physicians must be careful not to nick the neighboring bladder, which would fill the abdominal cavity with urine and potentially cause a serious infection. Preparing for surgery with 3D imaging allows the physician to see exactly where the bladder is relative to the colon and, therefore, know where to avoid cutting.
In another example, a physician preparing for surgery on a patient with a skull fracture or brain tumor could use data from a CT scan to create a 3D image of the patient’s skull and then print a replica using a 3D printer and special plastic. Having the 3D patient-specific model helps the physician fully understand the problem and its effect on the surrounding area.
Other clinical uses
3D models help educate patients, too. Often patients are hesitant to undergo surgery because they are understandably afraid of the associated risks. Providing them with 3D imagery of their ailments helps them better understand the severity of the problem and make a more educated decision on treatment.
Medical schools are now helping to accelerate familiarity with VR and 3D by using these technologies to help teach anatomy. Gathering cadavers for medical students to practice on is a big expense for medical schools, and sometimes there is a shortage of supply. Medical schools won’t need to worry about finding enough cadavers if they can simply print 3D models. Plus, they can print parts with specific ailments. Sourcing cadavers with a specific problem is nearly impossible, but if students need to practice repairing a punctured lung or conducting a coronary bypass, the school can print numerous models on which the students can prepare.
“If you can start printing out bodies and organs for students to learn from or physicians to practice on, that’s going to be huge,” said Salber.
That will certainly save more lives than pretending to scuba dive or climb Everest.