Surgical Planning

How XR is Revolutionizing Surgery

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality platforms have seen a rise in utilization and applications in medical practices over the past several years. But is all the hype worth it? Looking back on the era before the rise of visualization technologies in surgery offers a stark contrast to what is possible in today’s practices. Before XR, surgeons had to depend on 2-dimensional images, requiring them to mentally construct 3-dimensional models of the patient’s anatomy. This mental process was heavily reliant on their imagination, training, and expertise, considering that no two surgeries or patients are alike. This meant that each surgery presented a unique challenge, much like navigating one’s own home in complete darkness. Knowing the layout is beneficial, but the risk of missteps or accidents, like stubbing a toe or bumping into unseen obstacles, remained high due to insufficient visual clarity.

To illustrate this, imagine walking into your home with the lights turned off.  In the dark, you’re guided by memory, cautiously moving to avoid hidden dangers. But with the lights on, the situation changes; the environment becomes completely visible, allowing you to move with confidence and efficiency. This analogy effectively describes the transformative effect visualization technologies have on surgical practices. It’s as though surgeons are no longer operating solely from memory; instead, they have the lights turned on, illuminating the path ahead and greatly enhancing precision, safety, and outcomes in surgical procedures.

Just a decade ago, the idea that surgeons could superimpose a critical structure onto their live surgical field of view was unimaginable. Now, surgeons have the capability to overlay images of a tumor or a nerve onto the actual surgical site, assisting in precise exploration around vital structures. This advancement means surgeons can maintain uninterrupted focus on the patient; all the essential information they need is seamlessly integrated into their line of sight. Crazy, right?! One might wonder why any patient would choose to have a procedure without the benefit of such advanced and precise visual assistance.

Before entering the operating room, surgeons typically imagine how the surgery will take place, the location of vital structures and all the different scenarios that could occur. With the introduction of XR, this mental preparation is transformed. Surgeons can now immerse themselves and explore a patient’s anatomy in ways previously unimaginable, examining views never before seen.  They are equipped with the ability to plan and strategize different surgical routes, to select and practice the most optimal approach in a risk-free environment. This advanced preparation sharpens surgical accuracy, increasing the surgeon’s confidence in their approach and elevating safety standards.

The applications of XR solutions are not limited to planning and in the OR, it has revolutionized the way patients now engage in their own surgical journey. Rather than explaining conditions and surgical approaches using flat 2D images, patient specific models are created with detailed anatomical structures.  Patients can put on a headset, fully immerse themselves in their anatomy and tour details of their brain that 2D images could never provide. These models have a significant impact on educating patients and enhancing their comprehension of the procedures. It allows them to give true informed consent; for the first time, they are involved in their surgical journey and become active participants. 

Lately, the scope of Extended Reality (XR) has broadened significantly. Beyond its established roles in enhancing patient engagement, facilitating surgical planning, and assisting in the operating room, XR has branched out to support surgeon collaboration and the training of residents and fellows. Its use has expanded to encompass areas such as pain management, treatment of depression, and support for mothers during childbirth. Fields like spine surgery, neurosurgery, orthopedics, cardiothoracic surgery, otolaryngology (ENT), and plastic surgery are just a handful of the medical disciplines now leveraging XR technology. The potential is limitless, and I am thrilled to have front-row seat to witness where this revolutionary technology will take us and the many ways it is changing medicine and improving the standard of care.

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