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Mayo Clinic's Virtual Reality Lab is used to train doctors

December 1, 2019

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

Mayo Clinic has developed a virtual reality lab to teach real-world medical procedures and let doctors learn where unique structures are situated before performing a procedure.

The lab has been introduced into training for residents and fellows as well, in several areas, with more being planned.

CNBC's "On the Money" reported on the virtual reality lab recently how video game makers like Level Ex are developing video games and virtual reality tools with the sole purpose of teaching medical procedures to medical professionals.

"They're related to hand-eye coordination and how you maneuver in a patient scenario, in a surgical scenario," Level Ex founder Sam Glassenberg tells CNBC of his graphics-rich Airway ExGastro ExPulm Ex, and Cardio Ex "medical games for doctors." These games guide players through everything from "intubating a patient to removing a cancerous polyp" while allowing them to earn medical education credits along the way.

But are virtual reality "medical games for doctors" truly realistic enough to teach real-world medical procedures? Paul Friedman, M.D., a cardiologist and chair of Mayo Clinic's Department of Cardiovascular Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, appeared on "On the Money" to offer his thoughts on that very question.

"Any human activity — riding a bicycle, playing a piano — takes practice," he tells CNBC. "The more you can practice without putting people at risk, the better."

Dr. Friedman says that's why Mayo Clinic has developed the lab. "Let's say somebody has slightly atypical anatomy. Imagine being able to walk into that heart, look at the heart, see that person's specific anatomy. We can do that now," Dr. Friedman tells CNBC. "So before you do the procedure, you can have a sense of where their unique valves or appendages or other structures are situated."

Cardiac electrophysiologist Suraj Kapa, M.D., says Mayo's virtual reality lab was developed over 18 months and has been fully in use for the last nine months. But the technology isn't just for cardiologists. "Virtual reality and augmented reality tools are nothing new to Mayo Clinic," Dr. Kapa tells us. "People have worked with them before in neurosurgery and other surgical fields, as well as radiology.

The ultimate goal? To make the technology available "for broader clinical use by any care provider." Even providers not on a Mayo Clinic campus.

"Say a doctor at a faraway hospital is doing a procedure and it's not one they've done before," Dr. Friedman tells CNBC. "They get into a situation where they need help. Imagine that we put on (virtual reality) glasses, they wear glasses, and now we're in the room" with them.

Though Dr. Friedman notes that kind of global virtual reach is still "in the research and development phase" for Mayo Clinic clinicians, it's very much where he, Dr. Kapa, and others would like to ultimately take Mayo's virtual reality laboratory. "The hope is we can share expertise through the use of these tools."

The technology has already been employed in certain areas for training of residents and fellows.

Anatomy is a big area, Dr. Kapa notes. The three-dimensional aspect of the “games” offer a very effective simulation of anatomy, allowing for repeated practices without the need to find sources of real specimens.

The VRL has helped in fluoroscopy, where residents and fellows would previously need to arrange for use of the equipment on “off” times and even then be limited in how much time they could spend on it.

“Now we can train in an immersive environment, and at any time, and at our own pace,” Dr. Kapa says.

The lab is immensely helpful in learning from cases. “It allows fellows to relearn a case with expert-level consultants,” Dr. Kapa says.

“It’s like watching a video; you can rewind and pause as needed.”

Many more uses are on the way.

“We are trying to pick out the most immediate areas we can do,” Dr. Kapa says.

This story originally appeared on the In the Loop blog.