This Thursday afternoon, Shafi Ahmed will lean over a patient and begin a delicate operation to remove cancerous tissue from a male patient’s bowel. He has performed such procedures many times before. But this time it won’t be just his surgical team who are in the room with him – the world will be there too.
Planned to occur from 1pm the approximately two-hour long procedure at the Royal London Hospital is the world’s first operation to be streamed live in 360-degree video, allowing medical students, trainee surgeons and curious members of the public to immerse themselves in the medical event in real time.
Shot using two 360-degree cameras and a number of lenses arranged around the theatre, the operation can be viewed through the “VR in OR” app, using a virtual reality headset that can be paired with a smartphone. Those who do not have a headset can watch the video live online.
While videos showcasing surgical procedures have been around for years, Ahmed believes the new approach is more than a mere gimmick. The technology, he argues, brings a valuable new feature to education, allowing viewers to focus not just on what the surgeon is doing, but also on what other members of the team are up to. “There will be noise, there will be the immersive factor – so that will add different layers of educational value,” he added.
George Hanna, professor of surgical sciences at Imperial College, London is cautiously optimistic about the benefits of the approach. “If this technology allows the transfer of knowledge and skills [over] a wider range and in an easier way that would be very beneficial.”
But he is quick to add that, compared with existing approaches for sharing scenes from the operating theatre, the new technology offers more of an upgrade than a revolution. “It is a good video and wide broadcast with interactive [opportunities],” he said, stressing that the operation itself is real rather than virtual.
It is not the first time that Ahmed has led the way in embracing modern technology in healthcare. As co-founder of the healthcare company Medical Realities (which will be streaming the operation in partnership Barts Health and 360-degree video experts Mativision), he believes virtual reality, augmented reality and games all play a role in training medical students: two years ago he streamed a live operation using the “augmented reality” system, Google Glass, allowing viewers to see the procedure from a surgeon’s point of view.
But the new 360-degree video, says Ahmed, offers a new, immersive approach, allowing users to see beyond what the surgeon is looking at. Among the developments he envisages, Ahmed is keen to add graphics to the raw footage to provide additional information during the operation, as well as taking questions from those viewing the procedure.
“[During an operation] I am teaching people, talking to them, there is communication going on – so it’ll be just an extension of that,” he said. What’s more, in three to five years haptic devices could boost the experience further, he added. “Companies are really working on various gloves or bodysuits and devices so that it can replicate touch and feel,” he said.
Such technologies, said Ahmed could be a boon to health care. But he added, the role of patients in agreeing to take part should not be forgotten. “Ultimately, it is about the operation, about [the patient], about his cancer care and that has to be the priority for everybody,” he said. “The fact that patients have agreed to do this before – with the Google Glass – and again, it is quite reassuring and quite humbling.”