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Hoag Hospital Surgeons Utilising VR to Take Trips Through The Brains of Patients

Virtual reality is a technology that has been used by gamers to offer experiences that are quite close to reality. But, this immersive technology form has also been used across various other domains including healthcare.

Newport Beach’s Hoag Hospital is among those healthcare businesses harnessing the functionality offered by virtual reality. Surgeons at this hospital are going on detailed virtual explorations of their patient’s anatomy and performing virtual surgeries impeccably before stepping into an actual operation theatre.

Dr. Robert Louis, a neurosurgeon at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG

Los Angeles based Surgical Theater, a company that specialises in VR-based medical imaging. Hoag became the first Orange County hospital to install and use systems provided by the L.A based company, and one of the only ones around the US to do so.

The Surgical Theater headset is quite similar in appearance to the one worn by gamers. Neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Louis explained that utilising it enables him to embed himself within the brain of a patient. With this VR technology, he can visit any section of the brain he requires.

The VR system enables a surgeon to perform rehearsals of spine and brain surgeries in VR. The same virtual procedures can be performed numerous times, for perfecting surgical skills before performing a live patient operation.

According to Louis, the technology allows him to perform several practice rounds in the virtual space. It prepares him adequately prior to performing a real surgical procedure. He also expressed that before the VR-based system, there was really no way to practice surgeries.

Moty Avisar and Alon Geri, two erstwhile Israeli fighter pilots, are the founders of Surgical Theater. They implemented the same technology used for flight simulation in the operating room.

The duo started their work on the project during 2005, and their technology was cleared by the FDA in 2013.

The technology utilises preexisting MRI scans to engineer three-dimensional models of a patient’s brain, which are worked within VR spaces.

Dr. Robert Louis zooms in on the vascular structures of the brain. Image credit: Hoag

Patients can also go through the three-dimensional images created by surgeons, describing the plan of surgery.

The perspective that can be obtained through the use of VR is known as the ‘Superman’s view’ in the surgical domain. Surgeons can get a view of what cannot be usually viewed during the actual surgical process, citing the example of a tumour. In this particular case, it is like taking a flight through the actual tumour, and also going around it for an alternative perspective. – Dr. Robert Louis

Surgical Theater became a part of Hoag’s surgery preparation infrastructure from 2015.

Notable additions to the technology system include 3D imaging software, which is utilised prior to the surgery. The 3D images can be superimposed atop the actual live image feed, whilst the surgery is ongoing.

Hoag currently has two separate operating rooms with the Surgical Theater machinery, and the equipment has found a use for upwards of a thousand different cases.

VR was initially only used for brain surgery but is now finding use in several other medical applications.

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