How virtual reality training may improve ‘blind’ surgery to treat female urinary incontinence

For the 1 in 3 women who experience urinary incontinence, treatment often comes in the form of surgery: implanting a device called a midurethral sling. The sling stops uncontrolled urination during physical activity, such as lifting or laughing.

But regardless of how expert the surgeon performing the sling procedure may be, there’s a common issue across the 300,000 such minimally invasive surgeries performed in the U.S. each year: The surgeon works “blindly” — or, by feel. They estimate angles based on external anatomic landmarks and take note of subtle, tactile changes in tissue response as the sling is placed under the urethra with a tool called a trocar.

Now, a collaboration across the VCU School of Medicine, VCU College of Engineering, and Central Virginia VA Health Care System looks to replace the current expensive and time-intensive training process for the sling procedure through the use of virtual reality. Using an application developed by computer science professor Milos Manic, Ph.D., and his doctoral students, urogynecologist Lauren Siff, M.D. is helping build a VR training application that could change the way the sling procedure is performed in the future.

“This technology is a good example of how virtual reality can have an impact on the real world,” says Brent Fagg, a senior licensing manager at VCU TechTransfer and Ventures, the university’s IP and startup support office. “They have found a use for VR that can lower costs, remove risks and open this life-changing surgery up to more people in need of it.”

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