VANCOUVER -- Non-essential surgeries like knee and hip replacements are on hold during COVID-19. And so is the hands-on training for surgical residents in the orthopedics program at the University of British Columbia.

But those residents will soon be able to practise doing surgeries using Precision OS, a cutting-edge virtual reality program created by Dr. Danny Goel, an orthopedic surgeon at Burnaby General Hospital.

“Each person wears a Quest headset which is a head-mounted display that goes on your head, and through that you can co-exist in a virtual environment with other people who are not in your safe area or location,” said Goel. He is able to instruct medical residents who feel like they’re inside an actual operating room, and guide them as they use hand-held virtual reality paddles to perform surgery on virtual patients.

“If you put the implant in the wrong position or you put a retractor in the wrong position it will give you feedback during or after to say you made a mistake here or there,” said Dr. Goel. “When you’re engaged in an environment where you are the principal surgeon you have to make the decisions. It is a completely different experience than watching a video.”

Dr. Goel and his team have been working on Precision OS for two years, but the elective surgery ban and the need for social distancing has made the technology more valuable. “The fact you can’t practise a skill for what we use with our hands all the time has really skyrocketed the use and perhaps implementation of virtual reality and augmented reality in a way that we’ve never seen before,” said Goel.

He hopes it allows surgical residents to learn new skills and safely practise surgeries they were working to perfect before the pandemic.

“For their residents it may be months and months before they can do anything hands-on, be it on a simulator, in an O.R. or an environment where they can have access to a cadaver or specimen. So how do you you reinforce that muscle memory they’ve been working so hard to produce and create in the last several years of their training?” said Goel.

The technology is already being used by orthopaedic residents at the University of Connecticut, and will roll out at UBC in mid-May.

“There’s 25 or so residents in the program right now, so our plan right now is to offer them the hardware and get them using it and I will guide that myself,” said Goel. “They will be able to do elective surgery in our virtual reality model, which includes hip and knee replacement, shoulder replacements and arthroscopy which is camera surgery in the joint.”

Until the ban on non-essential surgeries is lifted, this could be the only way residents can practise during the pandemic.