Improved Colorectal Surgery Outcomes Are Made Possible Through Virtual Reality

As The George Washington University Hospital led the way to expand virtual reality (VR) from neurosurgery into thoracic surgery, it became clear that the technology could provide immediate benefit to other surgical arenas. One of these is colorectal surgery.

“We’re pioneering the use of VR in colorectal surgery,” says Matthew Ng, MD, board-certified general surgeon and board-certified colorectal surgeon at GW Hospital. “The goal of any surgery is to fix the issue—remove the diseased part of the organ and preserve as much as possible to retain normal function. Any way we can facilitate that is beneficial to the patient.”

After seeing thoracic surgeons use VR to localize lung masses, Dr. Ng and other colorectal surgeons discussed its colorectal potential with Surgical Theater©. Now, GW Hospital is leading the way in implementing VR in colorectal surgery.

How VR Helps Improve Outcomes

A significant benefit of VR in medicine is its benign and painless nature. With Surgical Theater© VR, CT or MRI scans are converted into three-dimensional images and colorized for clarity, a process that takes only minutes.

Once the images are prepared, the surgeon and others can review the images using an Oculus virtual reality headset. This allows surgeons an unparalleled view of the patient’s colon and rectum area. Surgical planning is therefore enhanced, leading to more precise procedures and positive outcomes.

“This tool allows us to identify a patient’s anatomy, which is important, as the rectum can vary in length and how it relates to certain parts of the body,” Dr. Ng says. “It’s easy to perform open surgeries, but minimally invasive techniques require precise port placement.”

According to Dr. Ng, VR has various uses within colorectal cancer care. It helps stage cancer, triangulate port placement, determine the extent of resection necessary and identify best placement of stoma. Additionally, VR provides insight that aids in the decision to provide neoadjuvant therapy and when a diverting loop ileostomy is appropriate.

VR is not, however, consigned to the diagnosis and planning of colorectal cancers. It also has other functions, guiding physicians in the treatment of diverticulitis, anal or perianal abscesses and fistulas and various small intestinal issues.

VR also offers benefits to the patient, as it lets patients visualize their body in a novel way. By wearing the Oculus headset, patients are enabled to virtually walk through their own colon and rectum, seeing for themselves the areas of concern. Abstracts submitted by Dr. Ng include data indicating that such use of VR increases patient education, which leads to a more positive patient experience.

Looking Forward to a Greater VR Presence

Though it has already assisted with the staging of cancers, planning of procedures and patient education within colorectal surgery, Dr. Ng suspects the application of VR will extend substantially.

“Right now, we’re in the infant stage of using VR in colorectal applications,” Dr. Ng says. “In the future, we hope to have it integrated into our robotic console, where we can see the VR imagery while operating.”

Such an ability is already available through certain vendors, and Dr. Ng expects it to be available for colorectal surgery within five years. When it does, expect GW Hospital to be one of the first to use it for such purposes.

Podcast – Robotic Surgery for Colorectal Cancer

Listen to Dr. Matthew Ng's podcast to learn more.

Refer a Patient

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