Virtual reality technology for surgical learning: qualitative outcomes of the first virtual reality training course for emergency and essential surgery delivered by a UK–Uganda partnership

Helen Please, Karamveer Narang, William Bolton, Mike Nsubuga, Henry Luweesi, Ndiwalana Billy Richards, John Dalton, Catherine Tendo, Mansoor Khan, Daudi Jjingo, Mahmood F Bhutta, Dimitra Petrakaki and Jagtar Dhanda (2024), BMJ Open Quality

Introduction The extensive resources needed to train surgeons and maintain skill levels in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) are limited and confined to urban settings. Surgical education of remote/rural doctors is, therefore, paramount. Virtual reality (VR) has the potential to disseminate surgical knowledge and skill development at low costs. This study presents the outcomes of the first VR-enhanced surgical training course, ‘Global Virtual Reality in Medicine and Surgery’, developed through UK-Ugandan collaborations.

Methods A mixed-method approach (survey and semistructured interviews) evaluated the clinical impact and barriers of VR-enhanced training. Course content focused on essential skills relevant to Uganda (general surgery, obstetrics, trauma); delivered through: (1) hands-on cadaveric training in Brighton (scholarships for LMIC doctors) filmed in 360°; (2) virtual training in Kampala (live-stream via low-cost headsets combined with smartphones) and (3) remote virtual training (live-stream via smartphone/laptop/headset).

Results High numbers of scholarship applicants (n=130); registrants (Kampala n=80; remote n=1680); and attendees (Kampala n=79; remote n=556, 25 countries), demonstrates widespread appetite for VR-enhanced surgical education. Qualitative analysis identified three key themes: clinical education and skill development limitations in East Africa; the potential of VR to address some of these via 360° visualisation enabling a ‘knowing as seeing’ mechanism; unresolved challenges regarding accessibility and acceptability.

Conclusion Outcomes from our first global VR-enhanced essential surgical training course demonstrating dissemination of surgical skills resources in an LMIC context where such opportunities are scarce. The benefits identified included environmental improvements, cross-cultural knowledge sharing, scalability and connectivity. Our process of programme design demonstrates that collaboration across high-income and LMICs is vital to provide locally relevant training. Our data add to growing evidence of extended reality technologies transforming surgery, although several barriers remain. We have successfully demonstrated that VR can be used to upscale postgraduate surgical education, affirming its potential in healthcare capacity building throughout Africa, Europe and beyond.

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