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Practical Applications for Virtual Reality in Healthcare

  • August 16, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Tom Foley

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Director, Global Health Solution Strategy

There’s a lot of talk about the promise of virtual reality (VR) in healthcare delivery. And while virtual reality has been used in practice for some time now, namely robotic surgery, new devices are gaining interest and likely to drive greater adoption. Many applications already exist in medical school and residency programs, such as training of existing staff on new procedures, managing patient expectations, and delivery of care.

VR should not be confused with augmented reality, another popular relatively new offering. The difference between virtual and augmented reality is somewhat subtle—it boils down to virtual reality placing an individual into a setting that is entirely imaginary, or “not real,” while augmented reality layers “not real” elements over real-time experiences.1 Both are on the rise and generating widespread attention in various circles.

For VR, early adoption for consumer use, especially in gaming, plus widespread media coverage of product releases like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, have made the concept more accessible to the public. Demand for virtual reality devices continues to rise, as “13 million Americans say they plan to buy a VR headset this year,” and at least 7.2 million units will be sold, according to SuperData’s predictions.

An industry really spurring the growth of VR is healthcare. As the Virtual Reality Society indicates: “Healthcare is one of the biggest adopters of virtual reality, which encompasses surgery simulation, phobia treatment, robotic surgery and skills training. One of the advantages of this technology is that it allows healthcare professionals to learn new skills as well as refreshing existing ones in a safe environment. Plus, it allows this without causing any danger to the patients.”

Medical schools and residency programs are taking advantage of these opportunities around the globe. In California, the Western University of Health Sciences is transforming anatomy with a VR lab, giving students a virtual tour of human body. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Immersive VR Education are working together on “a Gear VR experience that places students in a resus room where they take control and make life-or-death choices for their patient.” A team of doctors in London, led by Dr. Shafi Ahmed, co-founder of the VR company Medical Realities, performed the world’s first 360-degree livestream VR surgery, available to audiences worldwide via the Medical Realities website.

Advances in this technology, including graphics and simulation accuracy, are enriching the quality and value of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. In fact, software has made it possible now to create a “virtual patient” from head to toe. “Virtual reality software can piece together existing MRI and CT images into 3-D visuals that doctors can rotate around and inspect from any angle without having to open up a patient,” notes a Vice article. These breakthroughs are helping doctors make better diagnoses with little to no physical impact on the patient.

With devices like Gear VR, VR One, and Google Cardboard, hospitals are changing their approach to personnel training. Miami Children’s Hospital is experiencing another benefit of VR training—an increased employee retention rate. According to its CEO, Dr. Narendra Kini, “the retention level after one year of VR training is 80 percent compared to 20 percent after a week with conventional training.”

Also, as adoption spreads, healthcare organizations are teaming up with technology companies to create specialized VR software. Next Galaxy Corp. and Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami are partnering up to develop a software designed for hospital procedures like wound care, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and Foley catheter insertion.

Managing patient expectations is another opportunity for VR technology, from providing virtual tours to self-administered care simulations. A team in Manchester, England, at the Brain and Spinal Injury Centre (BASIC) is using augmented reality, a machine called CAREN (Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment), to help patients recover mobility after accidents or stroke. One patient commented, “I’ve had several falls since my stroke, and while the gym builds muscle, the CAREN builds confidence.”

A more recent application is the introduction of VR training for robotic surgeons. While there are no current training or curriculum standards for robotic surgeons, Florida Hospital Nicholson Center is in the process of creating a gamified program. Doctors are scored at the end of six exercises, each presenting various patient-safety situations that must be overcome using TeamSTEPPS, a teamwork system developed jointly by the Department of Defense and the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality.11

The Virtual Reality Society lists a number of additional applications, from dentistry and general health to behavioral health conditions like PTSD and autism.12 While the concept of VR in behavioral health isn’t new, recent advances and enhanced capabilities are likely to prompt renewed interest and increased adoption. Therapists have been administering virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) for decades, but due to technological limitations and hefty costs, it has not been widely available. However, more cost-effective devices present plenty of opportunities for VRET and other telemedicine solutions for patients. 13

New—and not-so-new—technology options like virtual reality are offering near real-world ways to learn, train for, and apply greater care. As more schools and health systems begin to experiment with the use of these technologies, and as augmented reality becomes more sophisticated, it’s likely that the benefits—in terms of increased patient safety, improved outcomes and reduced costs—will be significant.


1. Augmented Reality Versus Virtual Reality: The Battle is Real. TechCrunch. January 4, 2016.
2. Supply Shortages Are Holding Back Virtual Reality. Bloomberg Technology. April 20, 2016.
3. Virtual Reality in Healthcare. Virtual Reality Society. January 9, 2016.
4. Virtual Reality Could Be Big for Medicine. KQED Science. December 1, 2015.
5. Virtual Reality Medical Training Simulation. Immersive VREducation. December 8, 2015.
6. UK Doctors Live-Stream Cancer Surgery: How Virtual Reality Can Help Medicine Students. Tech Times. April 15, 2016.
7. Now Streaming: How to Do a Kidney Transplant. Motherboard. April 8, 2016.
8. Why Hospitals are Using Virtual Reality for Staff Training. Augmented Reality Trends. August 19, 2015.
9. How Virtual Reality Will Change the Health Industry. Inc. January 12, 2016.
10. Virtual Reality Puts Patient on the Road to Recovery. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). April 7, 2016.
11. A Video Game that Will Soon Train Robotic Surgeons. Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC). April 13, 2016.
12. Virtual Reality Therapy: Treating the Global Mental Health Crisis. TechCrunch. January 6, 2016.