Why it matters: Drifting into unconsciousness it’s a comforting thought that the young surgeon performing your operation has spent ten years in school learning to do what they’re about to do. Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee competence. It’s entirely possible that your surgeon has never completed whichever specific procedure you require without the guidance of a professor in the room before, which is why the training process is so essential.

For just about every surgeon performing today, they learned their craft by watching professionals from a quiet corner of the room. At some point, they no doubt graduated to passing the “scalpel!” when asked, and eventually, they were the one calling out the names of complicated instruments while the expert was in the quiet corner. But is that really the best way to learn? No, says a new study from the University of California (UCLA).

Twenty students in their first or second year of training were taught how to heal a fractured tibia, the large bone in the lower leg. The process requires the surgeon to make an incision, slide in a guiding wire, ream out the incision with a scary-looking drill, build a nail assembly, and finally insert the nail that will hold the bone together, then put in an interlocking screw for stability. It’s a complex process but one the students will have to perform often enough once they graduate.

All students received a five-minute tutorial on using the drill, then were split into two groups. The control group was given thorough documentation on the procedure, including images and step-by-step instructions (basically textbook learning). The second was provided with Osso VR’s surgery training program. Both groups were given as long as they liked to study the material, and they were subsequently asked to perform one procedure on a model and then again two weeks after.

At each step experts evaluated if the student had completed that part of the procedure correctly, and observed their competency in timeliness, handling of instruments and apparent skill and a couple of other factors.

On the first model procedure, the VR-trained completed nearly every step more successfully, gaining a larger advantage the more difficult the step was. Only VR-trained students were able to correctly build the nail assembly. On the general skill front, they were ranked significantly better than regular students. By the second test, some of the regular students had regressed, while the VR-trained students improved in every single measure.

Of course, one study, with a small sample size and various other errors, is not the most reliable indicator. However, the margins between the two student groups are so large that it's clear VR training needs to be further developed, tested, and ultimately deployed. Let me scare you with some numbers: the Association of American Medical College predicts a shortage of between 19,800 and 29,000 surgeons by 2030 (if you started at a college today, you’d still be in training in 2030). A different study found that about a third of graduating surgeons couldn’t complete their surgeries independently.

VR might just be the solution.

Image Credit: Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash