I spent 20 minutes inside live VR surgery

We go inside the operating theatre for the world’s first live VR surgery in London.

Last week I spoke with Rafael Grossman, the first surgeon in the world to use Google Glass while performing a live surgery in 2013. During the surgery, two students tuned in remotely and were able to see the potential of wearable technology in surgical education for the first time in the operating room. Grossman told me he’s very excited about the potential for technology in training medical students.

“Technology can be used in a smart way and has the potential to improve care and help in medical training,” Grossman told me over the phone from Maine, USA.

Then in 2014,  his friend and fellow cancer surgeon, Dr Shafi Ahmed, co-founder of VR and augmented reality firm Medical Realities performed live surgery to several thousand people who tuned in remotely using Google Glass. Two years on and Ahmed is performing live cancer surgery – but this time in Virtual Reality. He is operating on a patient with colon cancer at The Royal London Hospital.

Grossman told me that the patient involved has given full consent to the surgery being broadcast and is “very excited” about it. He also spoke positively about being able to use technology like this and showcase the surgery to the world from the UK – which is a very different picture to what is allowed in the US.

“The surgery could not happen in the US because of strict privacy laws. The regulatory laws do not run in parallel with technology. [So I] really applaud the UK for allowing this.”

So how was the VR surgical experience?

Tuning in was relatively simple. I downloaded the VRinOR app from the Apple store, slipped my phone into the Viewmaster VR headset and then waited for the surgery to begin. There might have been a delay or technical issues as it started about 20 minutes after the allocated time of 1pm (UK time). But once I was in, it was pretty cool.

Ahmed is seen operating on the patient while talking through the procedure. The 360 degree camera view is pretty intense. You can see him up close, as well as the screen which shows the surgical procedure going on inside the patient. As you look around, you can see a surgeon sitting down in front of some monitors, taking notes. Some surgeons are happily snapping pictures on their phones too while looking directly at me, which has the strange effect of making me feel more involved.

The view of the patient is pretty good too as the camera angle makes you feel like you are right by the bedside, standing next to the surgeons and witnessing the whole thing. Perhaps medical students might want an even closer view of the surgery itself, but for me personally who finds this kind of stuff queasy, this view is more than good.

I think for medical students and for doctors in general who want to learn or can’t physically make it to the surgery – this is a great learning tool. The VR also made for a great immersive experience. 

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