How Virtual Reality Is Enhancing Surgical Planning and Improving Patient Understanding of Thoracic Surgery

Surgeons at The George Washington University Hospital make use of virtual reality (VR) technology. With VR, cross-sectional CT or MRI images are converted into a 360-degree model and colorized. Utilizing the commercially available Oculus VR headset, it is possible to virtually walk through the imaged areas.

Keith Mortman, MD, FACS, FCCP, GW Hospital, Washington, DC
Dr. Keith Mortman

Medical VR was developed specifically for planning and performing intricate neurosurgeries. Until recently, that was the only application for the technology.

“I saw the potential benefit of VR for what I do,” says Keith Mortman, MD, FACS, FCCP, board-certified thoracic surgeon and director of thoracic surgery at GW Hospital, and associate professor of surgery at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “I met with the representatives at Surgical Theater and asked if their technology could be used in the thoracic cavity instead of only the brain. They said it could.”

Becoming the World’s First

Following Dr. Mortman’s proposal, GW Hospital became the first in the world to utilize Surgical Theater’s VR technology for thoracic applications. From day one, Dr. Mortman recognized its benefits were largely two-fold.

From a surgeon’s perspective, VR offers a unique way to visualize the chest’s interior. As such, it is a powerful tool in surgical planning, particularly when dealing with complex, large masses in the chest.

Dr. Mortman, however, posits that the greatest impact of VR is not felt by any surgeon or member of the medical team.

“VR has a greater benefit when it comes to patient education,” Dr. Mortman says. “It’s very difficult for patients to read CT scans. Even with my help, CTs are a lot of gray with some white if there is contrast. The clarity of VR shows problem areas to patients in three dimensions and offers profound insight into what’s going on with their body.”

Confirming Its Efficacy

Enhancing VR’s power is the technology’s ease of use. Patients bring a CD of CT or MRI images to GW Hospital. Minutes later, after a technician from Surgical Theater converts and colorizes the images, the patient can view the images in VR.

The first time Dr. Mortman used the technology was to provide a second opinion. A patient had a mass in the upper lobe of her lung. It was feared the tumor was growing into the mediastinum, but it was difficult to make a definitive diagnosis. Using VR, Dr. Mortman confirmed that the tumor was indeed growing into the mediastinum. As a result, the patient was not referred for surgery.

“That tumor was unresectable, unfortunately,” Dr. Mortman says. “Knowing that saved the patient from an operation that would have been fruitless, and that is just as useful as knowing when to operate.”

VR and COVID-19

Virtual reality also served to educate physicians during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. To combat theories that the virus was a hoax, Dr. Mortman turned to VR. CT lung scans of the first positive case at GW Hospital were converted into 3D images and reviewed via VR. The results were eye-opening.

“That was the beginning of our understanding of COVID-19 from a radiographic perspective,” Dr. Mortman says. “When the public could see in 360-degree VR that the virus is bilateral and progresses rapidly, people started appreciating the severity of the disease.”

The video spread globally, and Dr. Mortman expects uses of thoracic VR to spread as well. In the near future, he suspects artificial intelligence will be available to speed up assessment of VR images and aid in more surgical procedures.

Listen to podcast on using VR to assess COVID-19 →

Refer a Patient

To refer a patient, please call 1-888-4GW-DOCS. If you have a question for our specialists, please email