We live in a world where VR technology can offer viewers a first-person trip to the farthest reaches of our solar system or into the fictional world of Game of Thrones. But medical schools still require students to observe surgeries in person, often peering right over a senior surgeon's shoulder right in the operating theater.
Surgeon Shafi Ahmed believes there's a better way. The emphasis on in-person observation "is not [an] effective learning" tool and it's one "that needs a change," he said. Some two-thirds of the world's population—about five billion people—don't have access to safe and affordable surgery, according to recent surveys. Many developing countries don't have the facilities to allow students to view operations first-hand.
And those who do often have to teach students to first overcome the nervousness of being in the operating room in the first place. Technology, Ahmed said, could help bridge this gap, allowing medical students to view procedures online and helping acclimate new surgeons to the stresses of the job.
"Virtual Reality itself is quite exciting," Ahmed said. "It is innovative and I am very interested in the democracy of health education by using smart technology in a cheap fashion. I have an opinion that you can teach more people around the globe to make healthcare education more credible [with cheap VR technology]."
By cheap, Ahmed means consumer grade technology. He first used Google Glass to livestream a surgical procedure to more than 15,000 students in 180 countries. But the technology was expensive, and the interaction too limited.
"All they could do was text or message to a mobile phone application," he said. "They access the surgery through my eyes and the texts will come to my glasses. I checked it, looked at it, answered it at the same time.
"[But] it was limited and unreliable. It is too expensive, $1,500 USD."Now he uses Snapchat Spectacles, donning a pair of odd-looking sunglasses equipped with small circular cameras, to livestream his surgical procedures. Earlier this month, Ahmed broadcast a hernia surgery on Snapchat, publishing the circular videos to his Snapchat story.
He immediately saw a huge response.
"Add, add, add," he said while looking at his phone. "These are the people wanting to watch my video on Snapchat."
It's something that, on it's face, seems gimmicky. But, for Ahmed, the chance to share his knowledge beyond the walls of The Royal London Hospital trumps the initial weirdness of seeing a surgeon in a pair of black and yellow sunglasses and scrubs.
"Snapchat surgery is viable and effective form another way of teaching and learning around the world," he said.
He's trying to reach young doctors in a part of the world he left behind. Ahmed grew up without running water or electricity in a small rural village in Bangladesh. Every morning, he recalled, the villagers would walk out to the nearby lake to bathe. In 1973, his father moved the whole family to the U.K., settling in the city of Essex.
The move offered the young Ahmed a chance to explore some of his brainer passions. Back in Bangladesh, he was all about football. But in the U.K., he could focus more on science and math. By the time he was an adult, Ahmed was a student at Kings College in London—a city where he has lived and worked since.
But trips abroad, to Africa, Palestine, China and Bangladesh, showed the doctor first-hand the inequalities of healthcare across the globe. He made it his mission to share his knowledge of simple procedures, of "things that quite simple in the West but could transform and save people's lives."
"I came from that background," he said. "That is very important for me as a human being. Remember your roots. It is really [important] to use that knowledge in a way to help people around the world."
Technology, Ahmed said, "connects people and actually can make a big difference to a number of people benefiting from healthcare education." Today, he is something of a tech evangelist, speaking at seminars, either in-person or over livestream, about the importance of democratizing access to healthcare training and education. In the coming year, he plans to visit ten more countries, including Romania, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Oman.
It's a mission that, at times, even Ahmed can't believe is real.
"I was born in a village with poor technology and now I go around the world talking about technology and how it is going to change the world?" he said. "How ironic is that?"