Revolutionizing education on congenital heart defects

The Stanford Virtual Heart

Pediatric cardiologists at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford are using immersive virtual reality (VR) technology to explain complex congenital heart defects, which are some of the most difficult medical conditions to teach and understand. The Stanford Virtual Heart experience helps families understand their child’s heart condition by employing a new kind of interactive visualization that goes far beyond diagrams, plastic models and hand-drawn sketches. For medical trainees, it provides an immersive and engaging new way to learn about more than 20 of the most common and complex congenital heart anomalies by allowing them to inspect and manipulate the affected heart, walk around inside it to see how the blood is flowing, and watch how a particular defect interferes with the heart’s normal function.

“The heart is a complicated three-dimensional organ, and it’s really hard to describe what’s going on inside of it—especially when something is going wrong,” said David M. Axelrod, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatric cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Virtual reality eliminates a lot of that complexity by letting people go inside the heart and see what’s happening themselves. It’s worth way more than a thousand words.”

Students at Stanford University School of Medicine are already using the Stanford Virtual Heart to learn about congenital heart defects and to help them visualize the procedures our pediatric heart surgeons use to correct these conditions. Students have reported that VR is the most engaging way to learn about anatomy, far surpassing textbooks, models, online videos and cadavers.

Now Axelrod and David Sarno, founder of Lighthaus Inc., have opened an international pilot program for the Stanford Virtual Heart at 20 pediatric cardiac centers and educational institutions around the world. The purpose of the pilot is to study a number of factors, including how the technology is used and how the user experience can be improved. Also, pilot sites will research the effectiveness of VR in helping patients and families understand their congenital heart conditions, compared to existing methods of explanation.

During the Stanford Virtual Heart experience, users put on a VR headset and use handheld remote controls to interact with the virtual heart. They can rotate it, open it and inspect its different pieces, including the various heart defects. They can then “teleport” inside the heart to see the interior of the heart’s chambers and vessels and to watch the circulation of blood throughout the heart. Once inside, users can see exactly where the defect exists, such as a hole in a septum or an improperly attached valve (both common congenital heart defects). With a doctor close by to explain, the patient can more easily understand how stitches might close up a hole or how a valve would be repaired.

YouTube Video
YouTube Play/Stop Button

The Stanford Virtual Heart presented by David Axelrod, MD, at CeBIT.

The Stanford Virtual Heart program was designed by Stanford cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgery experts, along with VR education content producers at Lighthaus Inc. The program is available to children ages 13 and older and their parents and caregivers, as well as medical students. Doctors say the new technology makes it much easier for everyone to understand congenital heart problems

These virtual experiences hold the promise of a new frontier in medical training that will allow learners to absorb anatomical and physiological concepts faster and more effectively.

“The quicker I can get our medical providers to completely understand their patients’ hearts, the better the outcomes for the patient,” said Axelrod.

David Sarno, founder of Lighthaus Inc., said cardiologists from around the world who have tried the program have agreed on VR’s potential to reshape medical education, including cardiology. He believes VR technology will be standard in hospitals and medical schools within the next two years.

“Anatomy is a lot easier to perceive and understand when you can see and interact with a living virtual body,” Sarno explained. “It brings medical education to life.”

The Stanford Virtual Heart was highlighted as one of the most exciting virtual reality projects of the year by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his keynote address at the Oculus Connect 4 conference in October 2017.

The Stanford Virtual Heart was designed with support from Oculus, a subsidiary of Facebook.

David Axelrod, MD, is both the medical director of Lighthaus Inc. and a shareholder.