A Virtual Reality Look at a COVID-19 Patient's Lungs: No 'MD' Needed to Read These Scans

A Virtual Reality Look at a COVID-19 Patient's Lungs: No 'MD' Needed to Read These Scans

It's one thing to know a patient's lungs are infected with COVID-19. But it's an entirely different thing to see it through a virtual reality walk into those now damaged lungs.

The L.A.-based company Surgical Theater is using its high-tech VR platform, developed 10 years ago to allow surgeons to take an immersive look at patient imaging, to help doctors and patients get an in-depth look at the impact the novel coronavirus has on lungs, said Alon Zuckerman, the company's president and chief operating officer.


It is one of a slew of companies in Los Angeles and beyond that is working to help in the fight against COVID-19, in this case by giving medical staff and patients a closer look at the disease caused by the novel virus and a better view of the damage through virtual reality.

"There is such a stark contrast between the virus-infected abnormal lung and the more healthy, adjacent lung tissue," said Dr. Keith Mortman, chief of thoracic surgery at GW Hospital, on the hospital's podcast. "And it's such a contrast that you do not need an MD after your name to understand these images."

Surgical Theater first teamed up with George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., which was the first in the nation to use VR tech for thoracic cases four years ago to use its 360 degree view for surgical planning and patient education. Now, the hospital is using the same tech to assess COVID-19.

"This is something the general public can take a look at and really start to comprehend how severe the amount of damage this is causing the lung tissue," Mortman said. "The damage we're seeing is not isolated to any one part of the lung. This is severe damage to both lungs diffusely."

Dr. Mortman GWUH - COVID-19 Patient VR Flythrough 2 www.youtube.com

Two ex-Israeli Air Force officers created the VR platform after their experience with flight simulation to help with mission planning.

The FDA-cleared tech has been used in the operating room to help support complex surgeries with its 3D technology, and has been used in 10,000 procedures including in hospitals at Stanford; the University of California, Los Angeles; at Hoag in Orange County; and in New York hospitals, including NYU and Mt. Sinai, among institutes across the nation, Zukerman said.

The company is working with existing hospitals to offer help in VR-alizing the CT scans of patient lungs to help assess the surge of COVID-19 cases.

Mortman, who is using the VR platform, said he's especially concerned with possibly enduring damage to lungs as a result of these infections.

"When that inflammation does not subside with time, then it becomes essentially scarring in the lungs, creating long-term damage," he said. "It could impact somebody's ability to breathe in the long term."

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Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

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