Three Ways Virtual Reality is Transforming Cardiovascular Medicine
Slip on a virtual reality headset at The Heart Center at Children’s Health℠, and you could find yourself standing inside a double outlet right ventricle. With a wave of the controller, the heart spins around, allowing you to explore the congenital heart defect from every angle.
This kind of three-dimensional, immersive experience is at the forefront of medical innovation – and is quickly becoming an important tool for our cardiology team. Thanks to advanced software and imaging, physicians are now using VR to improve medical education, plan and visualize procedures and ultimately improve patient care.
“Every patient’s heart is subtly different. Our goal is to use VR to visualize each patient’s unique anatomy and develop the best plan for them. It’s truly individualized medicine,” says Animesh (Aashoo) Tandon, M.D., M.S., a Pediatric Cardiologist at Children’s Health and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern, who specializes in cardiac imaging and MRI.
Virtual Surgical Planning
Preprocedural planning is VR’s most useful application for our cardiac surgeons, especially for patients with complex conditions or particularly unique anatomies.
Dr. Tandon collaborates with our cardiothoracic surgeons and interventionists to create the best plan for each patient. What they see in the VR headset shapes which surgical technique they’ll use, how they’ll do it and what to watch out for.
“We walk through the anatomy together and talk about which approach is best,” Dr. Tandon says. “Even with common congenital heart defects, there are a lot of variations and minute differences between patients’ hearts. And, if it’s a complicated case, it’s even more important to know every detail of that patient’s anatomy.”
Visualizing Complex Cases
One of their more challenging cases was a patient with a double outlet right ventricle (DORV), a condition where the aorta and the pulmonary artery both come from the right ventricle. Surgery can be challenging because DORV presents in different anatomical configurations.
“Where is the ventricle, the holes and the outflows? It really matters how these things are related because that changes our surgical approach,” Dr. Tandon says.
The team used VR to examine the patient’s heart from every angle and map out the optimal treatment plan. “We told the parents we used VR. They were happy we did, and their child had a positive outcome,” Dr. Tandon says. “In fact, they’re now moving to Dallas to be near our cardiology clinic.”
Sizing Cardiac Devices – Before Surgery
VR can also be used to plan ventricular assist device (VAD) placements. Surgeons can try out a number of devices to find the best fit – before they open the patient’s chest. That’s especially helpful in pediatric patients with congenital heart defects, whose small size and challenging anatomy can make selecting and placing a VAD difficult.
For example, our cardiology team recently saw a patient who needed support for both ventricles. During planning, they placed both devices in the patient’s virtual heart – and found that two pumps wouldn't fit next to each other. That discovery changed the surgeon’s approach in the operating room.
Improving Medical Education with VR
Ultimately, Dr. Tandon and the team hope VR can benefit not only individual patients, but also the larger medical community. They’re currently working on an initiative to digitize hundreds of individual patient models and create educational videos about common types of heart disease using untethered headsets.
Dr. Tandon believes VR could be a great supplement to cadaver dissection. “Many of these congenital heart defects are rare, and you may never see a cadaver with this specific defect,” he says. “By making these models of many different types of heart disease available, students can interact with them – in 3D – whenever they want.”
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