Virtual reality headsets aren’t just the latest consumer tech craze. Innovative organizations across industries are finding ways to put them to good use, and medical schools are no exception. Simulation has always been a focal point of medical training — future doctors get hands-on experience in a controlled environment by working with mannequins or cadavers, or by using task training software. It’s not the real thing, but it’s close.

What’s even closer? Working in a medical virtual reality environment. Headsets like the Samsung Gear VR enhance medical simulations by transporting students out of the classroom and into environments that mirror the real world where they’ll be practicing medicine.

As virtual reality education tools become increasingly sophisticated, some cutting-edge medical schools are already making them part of the curriculum. Here are just five ways VR headsets are being used in medical classrooms:

1. Medical Skills Development

As EdTech magazine’s Meghan Bogardus Cortez points out, medical virtual reality provides an effective way for students to learn complicated surgical procedures that doctors rarely perform but must do quickly and accurately when the situation arises.

It also enables students to practice and perfect more common lifesaving procedures. For example, virtual CPR training has been around for several years, but as new technology enables even more immersive experiences, tech companies are developing new and improved training tools. Next Galaxy, a virtual reality technology provider, is currently working with Miami Children’s Hospital to develop immersive video modules that students can access via mobile apps. In these modules, users practice making quick decisions and get real-time feedback on their performance.

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2. Surgical Training and Observation

Medical students typically spend their first two years in a classroom environment and don’t get much real-world experience until their third-year clinical rotations. Even then, they spend only a couple months on a surgical rotation, and they vie with other students and residents for a chance to assist with — or even observe — actual operations.

Studies have found that simulated surgeries can help supplement these real-world experiences and provide effective hands-on training that students don’t typically get unless they enter a surgical residency. In “Teaching Surgery to Medical Students,” W. Brian Sweeney, M.D., states that “simulation can increase the learner’s knowledge base, improve decision making, teach teamwork, develop psychomotor skills … and ensure some degree of competency in the learner.”

Medical schools can now create immersive videos that enable students to observe surgeries up close and even from a first-person point of view. Earlier this year, Dr. Shafi Ahmed performed the world’s first live-streamed surgery via virtual reality through The Virtual Surgeon™ by Medical Realities, a platform combing 360-degree video, 3D and interactive content for VR devices like Samsung Gear VR. Created in partnership with Barts Health and 360-degree video company Mativision, the video will be used as a training tool for medical students.

3. Trauma Room Simulations

Practicing medicine can be intense, especially in emergency situations where physicians must think and act quickly under pressure. That’s why the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) has developed the world’s first fully interactive virtual reality medical training simulator. Using the RCSI VR Medical Training Sim app and Samsung Gear VR headsets, participants are put into the shoes of an emergency department trauma leader working to treat a car accident victim. Participants must assess the patient, make fast decisions and perform life-saving surgical procedures.

According to Donncha Ryan, learning technology manager at RCSI, “Virtual reality is the most radical technological change we’ve seen since the mobile phone and the opportunities it poses for education are vast. This app gives surgical trainees a lasting memory of a real immersive trauma room experience, which is much more valuable than just learning about it in a classroom.”

4. Empathy Development

All good doctors sympathize with their patients, but empathy is more difficult to achieve. Young physicians haven’t experienced the physical challenges of elderly patients, and doctors with healthy vision and hearing haven’t experienced the obstacles of being vision or hearing impaired. But with virtual reality education, medical students can experience some of their patients’ symptoms and ailments. For example, the “We Are Alfred” project from Embodied Labs and the University of Illinois at Chicago lets med students experience the vision and hearing deficits that come with old age.

5. Human Anatomy Exploration (No Cadaver Required)

Thanks to Unimersiv — a company that produces educational content for the Samsung Gear VR and other virtual reality headsets — medical students can now explore the human nervous system, cardiovascular system, muscles and bones via an immersive app.

These are just a few ways virtual reality is transforming the medical school experience. As innovative educators and virtual reality providers continue to partner up, these tools will only get more sophisticated and comprehensive, enabling medical students to see and do more than ever before. That’s good news for healthcare providers and patients.

Dig deeper into more ways virtual reality is transforming the world of healthcare education.

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Taylor Mallory Holland

Taylor Mallory Holland is a professional writer with more than 11 years of experience writing about business, technology and healthcare for both media outlets and companies. Taylor is passionate about how mobile technology can reshape the healthcare industry, providing new ways for care providers to connect with patients and streamline workflows. She stays on top of emerging trends and regularly speaks with healthcare industry leaders about the challenges they face and how they innovate using mobile technology. Follow Taylor on Twitter: @TaylorMHoll

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