It’s always important to ask what the evidence is with any new technology in healthcare, including medical education. Recent advances in virtual reality (VR) tech offer the potential for engaging, interactive learning experiences for medical students and residents, but is there actually any evidence to support this? A recent study in the Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery provides further data on this topic, specifically in dental education.

Researchers at the University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom created a virtual dental surgery trainer for trainees learning about the Le Fort Ostomy procedure a surgery used for maxillomandibular deformity corrections. They then trialed it at seven dental schools with 95 dental resident dentists in India. Primary outcome measures included self- assessment scores of trainee’s confidence and objective assessment of their knowledge of the surgery following exposure to the virtual reality trainer. Resident dentists undergoing a master’s course in oral maxillary surgery (OMS) and not familiar with the Le Fort Ostomy procedure participated in this study. The intervention consisted a 45-minute teaching session on the surgical procedure, with students randomized to either doing a virtual reality course (n=51), and the other group (n=44, but with 4 lost due to emergency procedures) undergoing standard curriculum with a classroom Powerpoint lecture on the topic.

Both groups had similar pre-intervention confidence and knowledge scores, and the content of each presentation (VR or Powerpoint) was similar. The VR intervention consisted of a VR Surgery program, ran on the Oculus Rift and combined with a Leap Motion hand tracking system. The VR program allowed manipulation of 3D anatomical models, interact with surgical instruments typically used, and view a 360-degree video of an actual surgery being performed. Trainee confidence in their understanding of a procedure is important in medical education (not to be confused with overconfidence), even before entering the operating room.

Findings were slated for the VR intervention group primarily concerning self-confidence. They had not only a greater confidence score with a significant difference compared to the control but also a greater average knowledge score of the surgery demonstrated over the control group although both groups improved in knowledge basis without a significant difference. These findings were most noticeable amongst the first-year trainees. Interestingly, the VR group had less educational time due to time spent on learning to use the VR environment, yet they still outperformed the control group.

While this randomized study of dental trainees certainly isn’t the end-all-be-all studies on VR, it definitely provides further evidence for those considering incorporating VR into medical education.