THE ROBOT WILL SEE YOU NOW
Skilled, scrubbed-up surgeons huddle around a patient in a brightly lit operating theatre. The chief physician makes the first incision, calmly explaining his every move to a captive audience of more than one million people. He deftly removes a cancerous tumour and the scene is all too real.
You might feel like you're there. You might even wince at the sight of the bloody scalpel. But chances are you're safe at home, learning about surgery through your VR headset.
The man who is snapping on the surgical gloves while beaming live operations across the globe, in crystal clear 40K VR, is Professor Shafi Ahmed, surgeon, cancer specialist and co-founder of virtual and augmented reality firm Medical Realities
When saving lives is second nature, it must feel good to diversify a little, so Professor Ahmed's Wikipedia page also lists him as a ‘teacher, futurist, innovator, entrepreneur and evangelist' in immersive tech.
To put in plainly the good doctor likes to give something remarkable back to his profession – knowledge and crucially, experience.
I've been following this incredible work and it continues to amaze me. If you want to know what the future of surgery and surgical training looks like start following this guy. Can't wait? Read on.
Here's a guide to how the Professor Shafi Ahmed and his company are helping to shape the future of medical surgery and one day help start a robotic revolution.
SO, WHAT DOES MEDICAL REALITIES DO?
Working closely with clinicians and experts in film production, animation, CGI, coding and graphics, Medical Realities experiments with virtual reality and wearable tech to stream operations live.
The company make surgical operations accessible to medical students all over the world, teaching future generations of doctors their trade by embracing existing new technology and using it for an altogether higher purpose than your usual 'shoot-em-up' game.
WHAT TECHNOLOGY IS INVOLVED?
The real beauty of Medical Realities work is that the technology the company use isn't some super expensive equipment, used by the medical profession only. It's pretty standard stuff and it's fast becoming commonplace, increasingly bought by regular people for smaller and smaller sums as the years progress.
In 2015 Professor Ahmed utilised Google Glass to stream an operation to 14,000 people in 118 countries. In April 2016, he blew that success out the water by streaming an operation in VR to 55,000 people in 140 countries, with 360-degree video cameras and VR headsets.
Last November he used Snapchat Spectacles to record a routine hernia procedure at the London Independent Hospital. The operation went viral and was watched by more than one million people.
Gaming, selfies and Snapchat stories are all cool but saving lives and sharing that knowledge has got to be worth a billion self-obsessed videos, in anyone's book.
WHAT'S THE POINT?
Ultimately, for Professor Ahmed and Medical Realities, the end goal keeps evolving. Initially, the broadcasts were all about training students and with good reason. A 2015 report by the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery revealed that about five billion people worldwide didn't have access to safe surgery.
If that figure is to change, a global shortage of some two million surgeons, anaesthetists and obstetricians will need to be trained over the next 15 years.
But the viewing figures for Medical Realities' broadcasts clearly showed a huge amount of interest from ordinary people who wanted to know what happens when a patient goes under the knife.
The demystification of surgery is more than an important by-product of the process, it's now a central part of the Medical Realities strategy but that's not all.
Through the company's broadcasts, Medical Realities also aims to make healthcare and surgical access more equitable by training people in parts of the world where they don't have the resources for conventional training.
Professor Ahmed believes his broadcasts are more effective than being at the back of an operating theatre and not actually engaging. Professor Ahmed concedes that his broadcasts are yet not a replacement for real physical training but he's steadily working on closing the gap.
WHERE'S IT ALL HEADING?
Surgery is a tactile job of lancets, forceps, and drills and to recreate that in VR you need a tactile feed, often referred to as ‘haptic feedback'.
Medical Realities is on the case, developing technology that will put ‘touch' and ‘feel' in the virtual space and make calibrating weight and size part of the virtual learning process.
Professor Ahmed's vision is to develop ‘the virtual surgeon' – a project that involves shifting from live-capture VR to full computer rendered simulations of surgical operations, complete with virtual patients and gloves to provide tactile feedback. The ultimate endgame? Self-taught, tech savvy surgeons capable of carrying out real-life operations.
BUT THEN WHAT?
This is where things get really interesting. Professor Ahmed doesn't think that human surgeons will always necessarily be the ‘brains' behind the operation.
Over the next 30 years, Medical Realities predicts that autonomous treatments will be developed, where doctors themselves are augmented by robotics or advanced artificial intelligence.
This technology will aid the surgeon's success by enhancing accuracy and reducing risk and could one day even replace surgeons altogether.
You could argue that a very early frontrunner is already with us. Since 2000, surgeons have utilised the Da Vinci Surgical System's four interactive, robotic arms to act as scalpels and scissors, assisting in hundreds of thousands of operations a year, including hysterectomies and prostate removals.
Although it's been criticised for its $2m cost and high maintenance fees, the system's double-jointed wrist design exceeds the motion of the human hand, reducing tremor and minimising error, already going some way to prove Professor Ahmed's point.
But robotics and artificial intelligence won't be confined to the operating room. Professor Ahmed also believes that future trips to your local GP could be an altogether different experience in the foreseeable future, stating:
“Artificial intelligence is already happening and in a few years, it will be the first point of contact for most patients because you can create an algorithm that will give you a diagnosis, treatment and prescription.”
WHAT OBSTACLES DOES THE TECHNOLOGY FACE?
Whilst these technological developments are likely to improve the overall quality of medical treatment, reduce cost and aid in training, Professor Ahmed is quick to acknowledge the likely stumbling blocks such advances will face:
“The downside is the adoption. Are patients going to be happy? We also have to answer the questions about responsibility, the legal framework, the ethics, the confidentiality and most surgeons don't want to change their clinical practice.”
When it comes to immersive tech advances in medicine there's much to think about, debate and discuss. After all, nothing is more important than global health.
But out of all the industries that Artificial Intelligence and immersive tech will revolutionise, healthcare is perhaps the most exciting and most obviously beneficial to mankind.
Advances in this technology is already changing how people receive medical training today and how healthcare professionals think about resolving medical problems in the future.
Through the pioneering work of Professor Shafi Ahmed and Medical Realities, this cutting-edge technology looks set to play a much greater role in medical training, treatment and saving lives on the operating tables of the future and Professor Ahmed's relatively simple VR broadcasts could be the start of something truly miraculous.
* Future Operations - A New Surgery Reality, Futures Stage, June 26June 26