KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Amid enhanced safety precautions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, medical schools across the country are relying more on virtual reality to help train future doctors and health care workers.
Multiple monitors in large classroom spaces at Kansas City University allow for social distancing, but students also are required to wear masks and time spent on campus is limited. Most lectures have moved online.
Access to in-hospital clinics often is limited as well because of COVID-19, which has led to an increasing reliance on virtual reality to teach future front-line health workers.
Brandon Bishop is a second-year medical student at Kansas City University.
When he's not listening to online lectures, you can find him suited up with goggles and controllers as he enters the virtual world of medicine.
"It kind of puts you in the hospital, so you can interact with the different things you normally would during a patient encounter," Bishop said.
With the controllers, Brandon can access the menu, select instructions for the virtual nurse and choose his treatment plan for the virtual patient.
"If I click on his head, I can communicate with him," Bishop said. "If I click on his body, then I can examine him, so you can do a heart exam, a lung exam."
The virtual session also provides feedback to the students about their performance and makes suggestions for improvement.
Virtual reality learning for medical students is not new, but the level of technology has become increasingly sophisticated.
The new Center for Medical Education Innovation at Kansas City University, which was completed earlier in 2020, was built to make the most of the new technology.
It proved to be a blessing when COVID-19 arrived, allowing Kansas City University students to remain engaged in state-of-the-art learning.
"Things like virtual reality, augmented and mixed reality, we're using life-like simulation with simulated mannequins," Kansas City University Provost of Health Affairs Dr. Darrin D'Agostino said. "We're actually integrating it into our systems courses, so when we're learning about the heart, we're also going to teaching them how to do the ultra sound of the heart."
Bishop has enjoyed the experience.
"Being able to go to the mannequin and actually listen to it and hear what it sounds like, it made difference," he said. "It made it a little more solid in our heads."
Even during the pandemic, medical school enrollment is at an all-time high.
The Association of American Medical Colleges reported a 17% jump in applications for medical school this year. Applications at KCU increased by more than 30%, so there's a waiting list.
Bishop said he's wanted to be a doctor since he was 5 years old. The COVID-19 pandemic only fuels his passion for a career in medicine and likely inspires others as well.
"Seeing that COVID is out there and seeing how it affects people and the way it impacts society, that's the reason I got into medicine," he said. "I want to make a difference."
Kansas City University staff acknowledges that virtual reality and augmented reality will never take the place of professors or completely replace a student's experience with real patients, but it's going to remain a key part of the curriculum even after the pandemic.
"Our accrediting bodies are mandating that we meet the same standards, so, although we are doing it differently, we're still meeting the standards that have been set for medical school and for our clinical rotations," D'Agostino said.
Bishop believes the education he's receiving, combining virtual reality with the chance to work with patients as he transitions to being a resident, will have him well-prepared for his chosen career.
"I think it'll give me a much better foundation," he said.
A foundation of saving lives and making a difference Bishop is building with his wife, Joelle.