Immersive medical training: hype or the future?

Updated on December 13, 2020
Medical team listening in conference room in hospital

By Elena Yakimova

Historically rigid and tradition-bound, the medical education system is finally changing, shifting away from the antiquated knowledge delivery models to embrace more hands-on and engaging formats. Against this backdrop, AR/VR has risen to prominence in the academic healthcare landscape. Today, the increasing number of medical schools and universities are integrating immersive technologies into their curricula, with some already reporting positive results of these forays.

But how feasible can these developments be down the line? Can AR and VR solve long-term challenges of medical education and take it to new heights, or is this just innovation for the sake of innovation? Specializing in AR testing, a1qa takes you through the ways immersive technologies have already reshaped medical training. 

How immersive technologies elevate medical education right now

Honing procedural skills

Lack of adequate hands-on practice is perhaps the most pressing issue for budding medical professionals. As operating theaters get increasingly retrofitted with sophisticated equipment and medical procedures become more complex, students need more time and practice to reach proficiency. However, many universities today lack the capacity and resources to meet this need. 

Also, some procedures can endanger patient’s health when performed incorrectly, so future doctors rarely have the chance to practice them. Moreover, as the usage of real patients and cadavers for education is widely recognized as unethical, many medical universities abandon the practice altogether, leaving students to learn on mannequins only. As a result, they may graduate with a skills gap and thus a higher chance of making medical errors and harming patients.

AR and VR can help universities provide students with ample hands-on training while also keeping education affordable and ethical. Thanks to the recent VR proliferation, students can train in hyper-realistic environments where they will not be afraid of making mistakes. 

In virtual reality simulations, they can brush up both simple and high-risk medical procedures until they feel confident, and the only equipment they will need for this is a headset and motion controllers. Above all, the recent study conducted at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA proved VR-enabled training to be far more effective than passive educational tools for learning surgical techniques.

The Oxford Medical Simulation (OMS) VR-enabled platform was released in 2019 but has already become a highly regarded educational tool. OMS offers realistic simulations of twenty virtual patients with various diseases, from diabetes to sepsis, which students can thoroughly examine and use to administer treatment. Over thirty organizations claimed they are to adopt the platform in the nearest future, with Oxford University itself among them. 

Teaching to be more empathetic   

Clinical empathy, or the ability to understand what the patient feels and experiences, is a mission-critical skill for a doctor. Through empathy, a physician can build trust with the patient and level up diagnostic accuracy, prescribe more efficient treatment, and minimize the cases of misdiagnosis. However, despite the undeniable value of clinical empathy, a significant number of medical professionals struggle to adopt an empathic approach in their practice. Many factors contribute to this, from high numbers of incoming patients to professional burnout, and a lack of adequate education in empathy is one of them.

Augmented and virtual reality solutions offer to put students in the patient’s shoes and let them experience what a person suffering from a certain mental or aging-related condition does. With the current course on personalization and customer satisfaction, there has been an uptake in the development and implementation of empathy-promoting AR/VR tools. 

The prime example is a VR caregiver training tool by Embodied Labs. In five-minute virtual sessions, it simulates the experiences of elderly patients suffering from degenerative diseases. The platform won wide acclaim and has recently secured $3.2 million in seed funding.

Another promising empathy-centered AR project was developed by a team of enthusiastic students at the Yale School of Nursing. The app simulates visual and auditory hallucinations, giving the user wearing an AR set a clear sense of how disorienting and distracting these experiences are.  

Nurturing stress tolerance

The ability to stay cool in high-stress situations is another crucial competency for future doctors, especially those training to become surgeons or intensive care physicians. Regrettably, most medical education programs offer few opportunities to get accustomed to such environments and develop stress tolerance. This makes early-career medical personnel prone to making poor decisions when facing their first critical cases or even sustaining a psychological trauma.  

Harnessing virtual reality, educators can recreate real-life medical emergencies to help students get used to the pace and pressure of their profession. Reenacting the simulation for as long as they need, doctors-in-training learn to make the best decisions and quickly take steps to save a patient’s life. 

Currently, the Madigan Army Medical Center, one of the largest military hospitals in the US, is actively exploring the Trauma Simulator platform by Exonicus. The solution has already been selectively used for training doctors, nurses, and medics to take fast life-saving actions in the stressful military environment. 

Making the curriculum future-proof

With immersive technologies playing an increasingly important role in health services, the proficiency with AR/VR-enabled tools is soon to become a critical competency for future doctors regardless of specialty. This way, pivoting to immersive education, medical schools can thoroughly prepare their students for the evolving needs of the modern healthcare system. 

Also, since younger generations are growing less tolerant of outdated educational formats and keener on digital technologies, AR/VR proves a valid competitive advantage for universities. 

Blended (part online, part offline) learning is another emerging tendency in medical education, supported by students’ drive for flexibility, universities’ effort to become affordable, and the pandemic and ensuing lockdown as of late. Leveraging AR/VR technologies, medical schools can create realistic and immersive learning materials and turn subjects that were once purely classroom- or hospital-based into fully online modules, while also curbing education costs. 

What obstructs wider AR/VR adoption?

Unfortunately, immersive MedEd technologies possess limitations. First and foremost, no matter how realistic the visual and auditory simulation can be, for now it can’t provide equally realistic tactile experiences. This makes AR and VR incapable of fully recreating physical examination, an important procedure for many medical practitioners. 

While AR/VR-powered training tools may prove cost-efficient in the long run, they are rather expensive to develop and set up, which also deters a fair share of medical institutions from adopting. What is more, to properly introduce immersive technologies into the program, universities will need to retrain their teaching staff first — also a lengthy and costly process.  

AR/VR: the new staple of medical training

Today, AR/VR is not just another gimmick that professors use to shake things up in the classroom. Instead, these are viable educational technologies that the leading medical universities actively add to their toolboxes. As practice shows, augmented and virtual reality solutions have no shortage of transformational potential: they can elevate the quality of medical training, prepare students for the pressure of their chosen profession, and make the educational process resistant to potential disruptions. 

At the same time, educators are reluctant to pin all hopes on immersive tech, and rightfully so. Realistic simulations and 3D visuals can never compensate for the lack of tactile experiences, and this makes AR/VR platforms unsuitable for certain types of training. Expenses and questionable cost-efficiency are other factors holding back many medical schools.    

Nevertheless, in the light of the above-mentioned examples, it is clear that immersive technologies have come to be the future of medical education and are highly unlikely to lose their ground.  

Elena Yakimova is the Head of Web Testing Department at software testing company a1qa. She started her career in QA in 2008. Now Elena’s in-house QA team consists of 115 skilled engineers who have successfully completed more than 250 projects in telecom, retail, e-commerce, and other verticals.


The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.