Virtual reality simulators for training in gastrointestinal endoscopy

Review question

Can virtual reality simulation training supplement and/or replace early patient-based training in gastrointestinal endoscopy?


Traditionally, trainees have learned to perform gastrointestinal endoscopy (a tubular camera used to visualise structures within the bowel or stomach) in the clinical setting under the supervision of a trained endoscopist. Virtual reality computer simulators use computer technology to create a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way. This technique is becoming popular as a way of providing trainees with an opportunity to practice skills in a risk-free environment. However, simulation-based training can be expensive. It is therefore important to ensure that skills gained through simulation-based training translate to the clinical environment.

Search date

The evidence is current to 12 July 2017.

Study characteristics

We included 18 trials with 421 participants and 3817 endoscopy procedures. Ten trials compared virtual reality training with no training; five compared virtual reality training with patient-based endoscopy training; one compared virtual reality training with another form of endoscopy simulation training; and two compared two different methods of virtual reality training. Ten trials studied colonoscopy, three studied sigmoidoscopy, and five studied oesophagogastroduodenoscopy. Participants included medical trainees with limited or no endoscopy training from gastroenterology, medicine, family medicine, or general surgery, along with nurses.

Key results

Compared to no training, virtual reality training appears to provide trainees with an advantage as measured by the ability to complete procedures independently, overall rating of performance, and visualisation of the colon or oesophagus. We found no conclusive evidence that virtual reality training, as compared with traditional patient-based training or another method of endoscopy simulation training, provided benefit, although data were limited. Existing virtual reality simulation curricula can be improved by applying educational theory such as a progressive learning strategy, whereby trainees complete increasingly difficult cases. The results of this review have shown that virtual reality endoscopy training can be used to supplement early traditional endoscopy training for trainees with limited or no endoscopic experience.

Quality of the evidence

Overall, the quality of the evidence was poor based on potential bias due to poor methodological reporting in trials and imprecision due to few participants and endoscopic procedures. Future studies must adhere to quality standards, such as proper randomisation, along with using valid metrics to measure endoscopic performance. Researchers should also compare the effectiveness of different simulation curricula that are based on educational theories.

Authors' conclusions: 

VR simulation-based training can be used to supplement early conventional endoscopy training for health professions trainees with limited or no prior endoscopic experience. However, we found insufficient evidence to advise for or against the use of VR simulation-based training as a replacement for early conventional endoscopy training. The quality of the current evidence was low due to inadequate randomisation, allocation concealment, and/or blinding of outcome assessment in several trials. Further trials are needed that are at low risk of bias, utilise outcome measures with strong evidence of validity and reliability, and examine the optimal nature and duration of training.

Read the full abstract...

Endoscopy has traditionally been taught with novices practicing on real patients under the supervision of experienced endoscopists. Recently, the growing awareness of the need for patient safety has brought simulation training to the forefront. Simulation training can provide trainees with the chance to practice their skills in a learner-centred, risk-free environment. It is important to ensure that skills gained through simulation positively transfer to the clinical environment. This updated review was performed to evaluate the effectiveness of virtual reality (VR) simulation training in gastrointestinal endoscopy.


To determine whether virtual reality simulation training can supplement and/or replace early conventional endoscopy training (apprenticeship model) in diagnostic oesophagogastroduodenoscopy, colonoscopy, and/or sigmoidoscopy for health professions trainees with limited or no prior endoscopic experience.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following health professions, educational, and computer databases until 12 July 2017: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid Embase, Scopus, Web of Science, BIOSIS Previews, CINAHL, AMED, ERIC, Education Full Text, CBCA Education, ACM Digital Library, IEEE Xplore, Abstracts in New Technology and Engineering, Computer and Information Systems Abstracts, and ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. We also searched the grey literature until November 2017.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised and quasi-randomised clinical trials comparing VR endoscopy simulation training versus any other method of endoscopy training with outcomes measured on humans in the clinical setting, including conventional patient-based training, training using another form of endoscopy simulation, or no training. We also included trials comparing two different methods of VR training.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed the eligibility and methodological quality of trials, and extracted data on the trial characteristics and outcomes. We pooled data for meta-analysis where participant groups were similar, studies assessed the same intervention and comparator, and had similar definitions of outcome measures. We calculated risk ratio for dichotomous outcomes with 95% confidence intervals (CI). We calculated mean difference (MD) and standardised mean difference (SMD) with 95% CI for continuous outcomes when studies reported the same or different outcome measures, respectively. We used GRADE to rate the quality of the evidence.

Main results: 

We included 18 trials (421 participants; 3817 endoscopic procedures). We judged three trials as at low risk of bias. Ten trials compared VR training with no training, five trials with conventional endoscopy training, one trial with another form of endoscopy simulation training, and two trials compared two different methods of VR training. Due to substantial clinical and methodological heterogeneity across our four comparisons, we did not perform a meta-analysis for several outcomes. We rated the quality of evidence as moderate, low, or very low due to risk of bias, imprecision, and heterogeneity.

Virtual reality endoscopy simulation training versus no training: There was insufficient evidence to determine the effect on composite score of competency (MD 3.10, 95% CI -0.16 to 6.36; 1 trial, 24 procedures; low-quality evidence). Composite score of competency was based on 5-point Likert scales assessing seven domains: atraumatic technique, colonoscope advancement, use of instrument controls, flow of procedure, use of assistants, knowledge of specific procedure, and overall performance. Scoring range was from 7 to 35, a higher score representing a higher level of competence. Virtual reality training compared to no training likely provides participants with some benefit, as measured by independent procedure completion (RR 1.62, 95% CI 1.15 to 2.26; 6 trials, 815 procedures; moderate-quality evidence). We evaluated overall rating of performance (MD 0.45, 95% CI 0.15 to 0.75; 1 trial, 18 procedures), visualisation of mucosa (MD 0.60, 95% CI 0.20 to 1.00; 1 trial, 55 procedures), performance time (MD -0.20 minutes, 95% CI -0.71 to 0.30; 2 trials, 29 procedures), and patient discomfort (SMD -0.16, 95% CI -0.68 to 0.35; 2 trials, 145 procedures), all with very low-quality evidence. No trials reported procedure-related complications or critical flaws (e.g. bleeding, luminal perforation) (3 trials, 550 procedures; moderate-quality evidence).

Virtual reality endoscopy simulation training versus conventional patient-based training: One trial reported composite score of competency but did not provide sufficient data for quantitative analysis. Virtual reality training compared to conventional patient-based training resulted in fewer independent procedure completions (RR 0.45, 95% CI 0.27 to 0.74; 2 trials, 174 procedures; low-quality evidence). We evaluated performance time (SMD 0.12, 95% CI -0.55 to 0.80; 2 trials, 34 procedures), overall rating of performance (MD -0.90, 95% CI -4.40 to 2.60; 1 trial, 16 procedures), and visualisation of mucosa (MD 0.0, 95% CI -6.02 to 6.02; 1 trial, 18 procedures), all with very low-quality evidence. Virtual reality training in combination with conventional training appears to be advantageous over VR training alone. No trials reported any procedure-related complications or critical flaws (3 trials, 72 procedures; very low-quality evidence).

Virtual reality endoscopy simulation training versus another form of endoscopy simulation: Based on one study, there were no differences between groups with respect to composite score of competency, performance time, and visualisation of mucosa. Virtual reality training in combination with another form of endoscopy simulation training did not appear to confer any benefit compared to VR training alone.

Two methods of virtual reality training: Based on one study, a structured VR simulation-based training curriculum compared to self regulated learning on a VR simulator appears to provide benefit with respect to a composite score evaluating competency. Based on another study, a progressive-learning curriculum that sequentially increases task difficulty provides benefit with respect to a composite score of competency over the structured VR training curriculum.