Heart surgeons use virtual reality to improve patient outcomes

New virtual reality technology has been designed that could improve outcomes for thousands of patients who undergo a surgical or keyhole procedure for congenital heart disease every year.

Every day in the UK around 13 babies are diagnosed with congenital heart disease - heart conditions that develop in the womb, before a baby is born. Depending on the severity of their condition, they might need one or more procedures to help their hearts function normally.

Now Kings College London researchers have developed a way of bringing together the scans that are routinely used to plan congenital heart disease surgery to create a three-dimensional, beating digital double of the heart.

The researchers hope that using VR to plan and practise procedures will shorten operating times and reduce the need for multiple surgeries, leading to better outcomes and experiences for patients and their families. They hope that it could be in regular use within the next two years.

“We have had a lot of help from the fantastic team at King’s Medical Engineering Quality Management System, who are helping us to move the device through from a prototype to a nationally regulated device which can be used to help plan these complex procedures,” said researcher Dr Natasha Stephenson.

Trials of an early version of the technology, which used only echocardiograms (ultrasound scans of the heart) to create the VR heart, found that surgeons preferred it for understanding the anatomy of their patient’s hearts. They also reported that it increased their confidence and improved their decision-making.

Funding from the British Heart Foundation has supported the researchers to add two more types of scans into the system - computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). While these types of scans are regularly used to help plan surgeries, they are usually only viewed on a flat screen.

Surgeons using the technology are immersed into the heart. It allows them to interact with and manipulate the images however they like. They can also test options for the procedure in VR before they get to the operating table.

Every patient with congenital heart disease has their own set of unique changes to their heart. By giving surgeons a better understanding of this and offering them an opportunity to practise and perfect operations, the researchers hope this technology will also help to improve the experiences of thousands of patients and their families each year.

“We think that this technology could also be used outside of congenital heart disease surgeries, to plan any procedure which aims to correct a structural problem within the heart, such as valve surgery in an adult patient,” said lead researcher professor John Simpson.

Last year, another project showed that jurors who view the scene of a crime in VR before making their verdict in a court case have a better chance of reaching the right decision.

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