Immersive 3D simulations help brain surgeons and patients prepare for complex operations, providing a VR tour of the brain that ultimately eases the fears of patients and family members about surgery.
Virtual reality (VR) lets anyone explore the cosmos and gain a visual understanding of the universe. VR also offers a detailed view into the inner universe of the human mind — helping to explain how the brain works, and then providing a diagnosis and treatment plan when something goes wrong.
Increasingly, neurosurgeons and other healthcare specialists are using VR to prepare for complex procedures, according to Jennifer Esposito, general manager of health and life sciences at Intel’s Sales and Marketing Group.
“We’re seeing a lot of potentially transformative opportunities to use VR in healthcare,” she said.
To prepare for brain surgery, doctors and patients use VR technology by Surgical Theater, an Ohio-based company that creates 360-degree VR models of a patient’s brain from numerous CT and MRI scans.
Not only does the 3D immersive technology help surgeons train for surgery, but it also plays an important role in patient engagement and satisfaction. Patients and family members can visualize how their doctor plans to treat life-threatening brain tumors or cerebral vascular conditions.
“If you think about the complex anatomy of the human brain and all of the anxiety that goes with a life-threatening diagnosis, the opportunity for a physician to walk a patient through VR-created images of CT and MRI images gives them the opportunity to really build a comfort level before they head in the operating room,” said Esposito.
Bringing Doctors and Patients Together
Black and white 2D MRI and CT images can be hard to decipher. Instead, life-like 3D simulations reveal details from every angle. Physicians can zoom in and out, even immersing themselves inside the image via VR headsets to get a better look.
“Being able to see an image like that, it really helped us understand what was going on in Kobe’s brain,” said Jessica Morrow, whose young son had a dangerous malformation in his brain. Kobe was treated by Dr. Aria Fallah, a UCLA pediatric neurosurgeon who uses Surgical Theater’s technology.
“[We] just get a better idea of what we were dealing with and it made it a lot easier on me to know how [the surgery] was going to go,” said Morrow.
Esposito said VR technology could become an essential healthcare tool because it can help improve the quality of care and improve overall patient experience and satisfaction.
“Shared decision making between patient and doctor has been shown to reduce the cost of care long term and patients get more involved in their pre- and post-op care plans,” Esposito said.
When doctors and patients collaborate on care, overall medical costs decrease by 5.3 percent, leading to 12.5 percent fewer hospital readmissions, she said.
VR technology is engaging patients and doctors, helping them work together better, Esposito said. She pointed to a study by Accenture showing hospitals that deliver a superior patient experience see 50 percent higher profit margins.
From Simulating Flight to Saving Lives
Created by former Israeli air force officers Moty Avisar and Alon Geri, who designed the flight simulator for F-16 fighter jets, VR technologies by Surgical Theater are being piloted with the help of Intel at a number of top research hospitals, including UCLA, New York University, University Hospitals Case Medical Center, Mayo Clinic, Mount Sinai and Stanford University.
Neurosurgeon Robert Louis uses the 360-degree VR technology at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California. He uses it to point out tumors, which can grow beneath arteries and near the optic nerve. Precision VR allows neurosurgeons to look at patients’ brains from multiple angles and practice their entry points.
“I’m having patients come from other states saying if I’m going to have an operation done, I want it done with the Surgical Theater with the virtual reality system,” said Louis.
Hoag Hospital is a not-for-profit regional health care delivery network in Orange County that treats nearly 30,000 inpatients and 350,000 outpatients annually. After the first nine months of using VR, the hospital reported that the percentage of patients who chose to have surgery at Hoag versus other providers that recommended surgery grew from 62 percent to 84 percent.
When he saw it for the first time, Louis said it struck him immediately that VR was the next big leap for his field. He believes that VR is among the most significant advancements to neurosurgery in the past half century.
“One of the [advancements] was the microscope,” he said. “Another one was [surgical] navigation. These things have made a huge difference in the safety of the procedures.”
Intel’s Kumar Chinnaswamy, director of Commercial VR Solutions, remembers the first time he heard about surgeons using medical VR on a young boy in the hospital. The boy’s parents didn’t speak English well, and were having difficulty understanding the doctor.
But that changed the moment the doctor introduced the VR technology.
“They put [the headset] on the kid’s head, and the doctor shows the kid what is going to happen,” Chinnaswamy said. “The kid becomes animated. He’s able to explain to his parents what’s happening.”
“That’s magical. That is when technology transforms life.”
Editor’s note: Rob Kelton produced the Intel video and contributed to this story. Learn about data science and technologies are helping healthcare providers treat patients and save lives.