One doctor would carry out the work while others 'sit on the shoulder' and supervise or watch via communications links. This 'teletransportation' of medical expertise would cut costs since patients would not have to fly thousands of miles to specialists.
Six patients at Ipswich Hospital have already benefited from trials of an early version of this VR technology. Its developers are claiming a 'world first' for the work, which lets doctors track surgical equipment, such as endoscopes, inside the body in three dimensions.
The new monitoring technology replaces X-ray techniques used to monitor surgical instruments, so should make operations safer for both patients and surgeons.
The VR trace appears in grey- scales to convey a sense of depth. X-ray pictures can show only a flat picture of the intestines, giving no idea of the relative position of each loop.
The system works by setting up low-energy magnetic fields around a patient. Specialist software converts electrical impulses from a sensor inside the endoscope into a 3-D image and displays this on a television screen or on a miniature eyepiece directly in front of the surgeon's eye.
The idea for the future is that the operating surgeon will wear tiny cameras on either side of the head. Images from these sent to watching surgeons, combined with the 3-D endoscope plot, would let the remote surgeon 'see' exactly what goes on in the operating
The Ipswich system sprang from an idea by Dr Duncan Bell, a consultant physician at Ipswich Hospital. The prototype was developed by a research group at British Telecom's laboratories at Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich, and a team at Sheffield University. A commercial VR system could cost less than pounds 10,000.
Dr Bell hopes the technology will help to improve technically demanding procedures designed to prevent colon cancer, which kills about 20,000 people a year in Britain.
He explained that the wiggly nature of the intestines makes even exploratory colon operations technically difficult. The new system shows surgeons the direction in which the intestine bends, making mistakes less likely.
The head of the BT group, Peter Cochrane, said the next step is to combine the Ipswich work with other advanced technologies. Robots are already used to carry out hip, eye and brain operations, he said. Eventually, surgeons may not only see, but also hear and feel operations from a distance, using high-speed voice links and 'feely' virtual reality gloves.