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Is Practicing Medicine Virtually Impossible?

August 1, 2006
by Hisham Sherif, M.D.
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Employing virtual medicine technologies and techniques can help propel healthcare into the future.

Over the past decade, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of new applications of virtual reality technology in the healthcare field. However, when compared to other industries, particularly aviation, the healthcare industry seems to lag behind, especially in the areas of utilization and a comprehensive, forward-looking strategy for implementation of such systems and as these systems relate to safety.

Along with the increase, there has been a similar increase in the terms used to describe newer medical ventures and institutions employing such technology, with terms like virtual ICU, digital hospital, virtual care, etc, becoming increasingly popular. A steady trend has emerged promoting and marketing wider, more sophisticated, further-reaching and more automated virtual reality technology applications in different disciplines of medical practice.

This trend has been driven, for the most part, by three main factors. One is an increasing awareness and vigilance for safety and the prevention of errors in the medical field. Complementing this is an increasingly mobile and more health-conscious population, with higher standards demanding wider, unhindered access to quality medical care.

And finally is the chronic shortage of healthcare professionals, especially in areas involving high-stress, wide-impact specialties. These factors are coupled with a continued increase in the level of technological sophistication in equipments, procedures and resources.

Of these three key factors, the emphasis has mostly been on a safer and error-free environment for medical practice. An oft-cited parallel is the civil aviation industry, which has managed to maintain an impressively low level of accidents, disasters and errors, partly due to having a longer track record of implementing virtual reality technology — particularly automated systems —throughout the different aspects of the industry.

Citation of that complex, multi-faceted industry's successful reduction of error/accident/failure rates by the Institute of Medicine, in its 1999 report, "To Err is Human," has generated more interest and momentum towards a similar experience in the medical practice, with the goal of similar results.

Capturing the essence

Virtual reality technology has emerged, at least partly, as the technical answer to the existential question of how to define reality. It highlights the differences between perception and reality. This perspective has led various researchers to identify, correlate and manipulate the pertinent, objective data and factors about a given subject, observation or perception and made it possible to construct a complete environment that does not exist.

One of the advantages of virtual reality technology is the improved control of the environment, thereby providing better understanding, manipulation and prevention of the causal pathways for errors or failures, which directly translates into improved performance, improved safety, reduced errors/failures and overall improved outcomes. For nearly half a century, the civil aviation industry has relied heavily on virtual reality technology in the design, development and maintenance of almost all aspects of its environment. This has resulted in a remarkable reduction to the accident/failure rate for this industry.

In contrast, the healthcare industry, specifically the area of medical practice, has been lagging in terms of the extent, comprehensiveness and reliability of virtual reality technology. Only fairly recently have such systems been increasingly implemented, and so far the majority of these applications have been limited to one or two elements within a conceivable virtual reality environment.

Recently, however, as the practice of medicine has become increasingly complex, trans-disciplinary and involving an increasing number of manpower-hours, there has also been an acute awareness of the incidence, nature and causal pathways of medical errors.

This drive to have virtual reality technology play a more central role in the practice of medicine, so far, has not had the expected results. This can be attributed to the differences and limitations characterizing the healthcare industry, as opposed to the civil aviation industry.

Expanding the promise

So far, virtual reality technology has only been implemented in limited areas and aspects of the healthcare industry, mainly those involving medical imaging, medical education and bedside as well as remote monitoring. One of the most important yet least discussed aspects of implementing virtual reality technology in medical practice is the vision of its role in the healthcare industry.

There is still a lack of consensus regarding a total or near-total, automated virtual medicine environment versus utilizing virtual reality as an adjunct to traditional medical practice. Until the medical community acquires a clear goal of implementing virtual reality technology, its role will continue to be limited to areas where it will have minimal impact on the overall performance of the healthcare industry, including patient safety.