Sian Claire Owen, Cardio Debate medical journalist

Virtual reality (VR) and 3D printing are gradually entering the mainstream consciousness. People no longer associate these new technologies with Star Trek episodes, and it is a matter of time before we will take them for granted in our everyday lives. These emerging technologies – currently in their relative infancy – have the capacity to transform medicine for the better.

Take VR, for example. This is nothing new. According to ComputerWorld magazine, 60 per cent of physicians have used virtual realty in some capacity to help them practice surgical techniques, especially those that use endoscopic tools. [1]

However, recent developments have taken this technology many steps further. Earlier this year a group of interventional cardiologists at the Warsaw Institute of Cardiology, Poland, successfully used a VR headset to perform “computed tomography-guided percutaneous revascularization of a chronically occluded right coronary artery” using a wearable, hands-free computer with a head-mounted display developed using Google Glass technology. [2]

VR simulations for medical training is a rapidly growing market. And it is not just training where VR is making waves. This non-invasive technology is showing promise in the field of stroke rehabilitation.

A recent small study looked at the effectiveness of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) combined with VR motor training. [3] Fifteen healthy right-handed volunteers were compared with 15 patients with stroke in the sub-acute phase. Patients who received both tDCS and VR motor training derived the most benefit. Furthermore, the VR exercise “produced a higher level of attention and a lower fatigue scale score than active wrist exercise.” [3]

Another emerging technology is 3D printing. This technology is causing much excitement, and holds great potential to revolutionise cardiology, if not medicine in general.

During an interview with THINK Medical 3D Printing on, cardiologist Wener Budts, MD, PhD from University Hospitals Leuven, Belgium describes the advantages of using 3D printing in his practice. It allows him to create highly accurante anatomical-heart models for specific patients, it helps him and his colleagues to better explain medical procedures to patients, and 3D printed models serve and an excellent resource for students. [4]

We still obtain a lot of information based on 2D images, but it is time to open the door for 3D imaging and 3D printing,” he says.

And researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts, US, also describe the benefits of 3D printing for cardiology in Nature journal, saying that: “3D-printed models fabricated from CT, MRI, or echocardiography data provide the advantage of haptic feedback, direct manipulation, and enhanced understanding of cardiovascular anatomy and underlying pathologies.” [5]

This means that implants and devices can be totally bespoke to the patient, allowing for more personalised patient care. The future is indeed looking bright with these new emerging technologies.