Medical pioneer Prof Shafi Ahmed on using VR to train doctors and robotic hospitals

What's the big idea?

The use of augmented and virtual reality to revolutionise the way we teach future generations of doctors. My company, Medical Realities, uses clinicians and people with experience in film production, animation, CGI graphics and code to do so, and we’ve experimented with wearable technology to stream operations live.

What do the broadcasts involve?

Two years ago we used Google Glass to stream an operation to 14,000 people in 118 countries. We then streamed a VR operation in April last year to 55,000 people in 140 countries using a 360-degree camera. In November, we used Snapchat Spectacles to run our first experiment with a social media platform. That went viral — it’s been watched by around a million people.

What’s the purpose of these broadcasts?

They’re for medical students, surgical trainees and doctors but also for the public. One thing I try to do is demystify the whole process. And it’s important to highlight the patients who help support this, because they want to be part of this innovation.

The aim is to make healthcare and surgical access more equitable by training people in parts of the world where they don’t have the resources to do things better. With a smartphone, a free app and a basic streaming connection, you’re getting high fidelity at a low cost, and while this isn’t a replacement for physical training, it’s better than being in the operating theatre at the back of the room and not actually engaging.

What does the future hold for Medical Realities’ technology?

We’re developing haptic feedback, allowing you to ‘touch’ and ‘feel’ within the virtual space. Over the next 30 years, we’re looking at autonomous treatments, where doctors are augmented by robots or advanced artificial intelligence, which will do a lot of the work for them.

Artificial intelligence is already happening and in a few years will be the first point of contact for most patients because you can create an algorithm that will give you a diagnosis, treatment and prescription.

Then the bigger picture is looking at Elon Musk’s vision of going to Mars. How do you treat people remotely in space? This is really outside the box in terms of how we’d use 3D-printing and remote and autonomous doctors.

What obstacles do you foresee?

All this might make things more efficient in terms of cost but the downside is the adoption — are the patients going to be happy? We also have to answer questions about responsibility, the legal framework, the ethics, the confidentiality… and most surgeons don’t really want to change their clinical practice.

I think the NHS is getting used to innovation but it’s still difficult to create a system where innovation is disseminated across the organisation quickly. Changing will be difficult.

Professor Shafi Ahmed is a general surgeon at the Royal Hospital London, associate dean at St Bartholemew’s, and a council member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He’ll also be speaking at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity, which is in Cannes between June 17 and 24,