The procedure was over in a matter of minutes.
Dr. Cynthia Kahlenberg, a fourth-year medical resident at Hospital for Special Surgery, had done her best to get her bearings in the cavernous operating room. She initially dropped a surgical rod before successfully placing it in the tibia of a sedated patient with a broken leg.
The patient had been jogging in Central Park and was struck by a cab, explained Dr. Anil Ranawat, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the sports medicine fellowship at Hospital for Special Surgery. He chided Kahlenberg for making the surgical hole too large, although he was impressed with her speed.
But under the bright surgical lamp on the stainless steel table in front of her, there was no patient with a broken leg—only a laptop running the software projected into Kahlenberg's headset. When she took off her virtual-reality goggles, she was back in the Bioskills Education Lab on the eighth-floor of HSS in Manhattan.
The orthopedic specialty hospital is testing new software from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Osso VR. The technology could offer a way for residents at HSS and other hospitals to hone their surgical skills before progressing to other types of simulations, such as operating on cadavers.
Virtual reality is emerging in healthcare as a high-tech solution to problems as varied as training doctors, reducing medical errors and helping patients manage pain. The technology's proponents wax enthusiastic about its potential to provide on-demand training. But others say it still has a long way to go to replicate a real-world medical environment.
Virtual-reality simulations could prove particularly useful in many procedure-based areas of medicine, such as anesthesia, to introduce new physicians to the steps needed to complete a task, said Dr. Mathias Bostrom, a hip and knee surgeon and the vice chairman of education and academic affairs at HSS.
Bostrom first spotted Osso VR at a trade show and was impressed when the company came to the hospital to demonstrate the technology. "Certain industries such as aviation have been doing simulation for many decades," he said. "It's been relatively late in coming into medicine and surgery."
For decades HSS has been using sawbones—artificial bones that residents can practice on—as well as cadavers in its simulation lab.
"Cadavers are still the gold standard of how to teach young surgeons," Ranawat said.
But cadavers can be expensive. Brokers sell human bodies for $3,000 to $5,000 apiece, although they often sell them in parts. A torso with legs runs $3,575; a head costs about $500, according to a 2017 Reuters investigation.
The prep and cleanup for VR simulations is simpler too. "I don't have to thaw the computer," joked Justin Dufresne, manager of the Bioskills lab, gesturing to a nearby cadaver lying on a dissection table under a blue sheet.
A few weeks earlier Osso's co-founder, Dr. Justin Barad, had given a demonstration at a medical technology conference at the Javits Center. To date, the company's clients mostly have been medical device makers that use VR to help surgeons practice implanting their products. Barad, who worked as a video game developer before he became an orthopedic surgeon, said the simulation can save device makers the expense of sending sales reps around the country or flying in doctors for demonstrations.
Osso has raised $2 million in venture capital funding thus far. It also won $480,000 in cash and prizes at an EdSim Challenge held by the U.S. Department of Education. Many medical VR companies, including Osso, are using off-the-shelf goggles and other hardware such as Oculus' Rift.