It’s no longer news that virtual and augmented reality have spilled out of the gaming world onto many other industries. Some of the benefits and show-stopping moments that these technological advances have introduced to the retail, cosmetics and field services industries have been examined and highlighted, but when it comes to the healthcare industry, the stakes are, arguably, a bit higher.

Let’s delve into how VR is being used for medical treatments, training tools for future physicians and construction of hospitals.

VR for Medical Treatments

Articles and studies that depict the use of VR for treatments of patients are becoming more and more frequent. A common area that doctors are using VR is for reducing pain and anxiety.

They use VR videos to successfully distract patients from painful experiences such as dressing changes, cancer treatments and IV placements. A Cedars-Sinai Study conducted with 100 hospitalized patients last March found that “those who watched calming videos on a VR headset [had] a 24% drop in pain scores. The other 50 patients who watched a standard, 2D nature video with relaxing scenes on a nearby screen experienced only a 13.2% reduction in pain.”

At Hermes Pardini Labs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, medical staff are providing children with VR goggles and, while the young ones are mesmerized by the enticing game they’re participating in, they are being administered immunizations.

When it comes to anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental illnesses in the US alone affecting roughly 18 percent of the nation’s population, VR-inspired treatments are gaining some traction.

Andrew Huberman, researcher in the Stanford University Department of Neurobiology has developed virtual reality films, about 10 minutes in length, that pull the participant into a 360-degree camera created realm of frightening experiences. These true-to-life scenarios include climbing a 250-feet tree, being attacked by a 120-pound pit bull, getting locked in a claustrophobic elevator and swimming with sharks. The study, which isn’t a formal critical trial, has 85 participants with the goal of this number rising to 250.  Via this study, Huberman hopes to pair the fear-inducing experiences created by a virtual reality chamber his team created from scratch, with vision, our dominant mode of sensation.  After exposing patients to the nightmarish experiences that may well be the causes or significant elements of their particular disorder, they will receive training in various matters for systematic reduction of fear and anxiety.

Dementia, which is characterized by patients’ declining mobility and memory, is another disease that is receiving some newfound hope, by means of targeted VR use.  Studies and research have shown that Virtual Reality treatments can help treat pain and anxiety, which are often complementary to dementia-related symptoms, which include agitation and severe mood swings. VR targets these issues by inducing a calming effect in patients that may lead to sparking long-forgotten memories, which is often one of the main causes of their frustration. This beneficial full-circle moment offers hope to suffering patients but also their family members and health care professionals. The challenges presented by the symptoms are difficult for the patients themselves, but often, even more so burdensome on those closest to them.

VR images or videos of calming environments have shown to reduce stress by 70 percent and provide a healthy alternative to combat these behaviors. Loss of mobility in dementia patients can cause a sense of isolation and can lead to depression.

When one is unable to change their location in the physical world, VR can offer the next best thing. Patients can explore places they want to see in the comfort of their own room, without the feeling that their limited mobility is keeping them from seeing and experiencing the outside world. This may provide a considerable sense of comfort and newfound hope to patients who have, perhaps, never imagined that this may be attainable.

In this sense, VR use is, arguably, not only therapeutic, but a borderline miracle.

Psychologists have also used VR for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 1997, Georgia tech researchers found a link between exposure therapy and virtual reality technology. In their study, they enrolled 10 volunteers who had not responded to previous treatments. The study was called Virtual Vietnam. The treatment consisted of the volunteers putting on VR headsets and watching various war simulations. As they were watching, they were asked to describe their own personal trauma. After only a month of treatment, patients showed signs of tremendous improvement. A similar study was done with burn victims from the September 11th terrorist attacks. More recently, a study recently published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders concluded that after a six month follow up period, patients did not have any adverse events and had improved while maintaining those improvements up to six months.

Another area that has peaked interest in Andrew Huberman’s investigation of VR-supported treatments is glaucoma – a disease of the eye caused by a buildup of optical pressure that can lead to blindness. As described in a 2016 Nature Neuroscience article where Humberman and his colleagues used gene therapy and focused light stimulation on mice with glaucoma, they also use a  virtual reality device that causes visual stimulation to try to encourage the damaged neurons in the eye to regenerate. In a clinical trial involving humans, virtual reality eyewear provided patients with partial vision an opportunity to partake in an effort to slow the process of vision-loss: “To keep things interesting, the virtual reality experience involves more than white dots. When patients put on special headsets, they’re transported into an art gallery with empty frames on the walls. They can move their eyes or their head to explore the gallery, but the point of it all is the visual stimulation of those flashing white dots, which dance across the screen for periods of one to three minutes at different sizes and speeds.”

While using VR for treating various disorders has been around since the 1990s, the methods and the sustainability and depth of research is gaining more traction with the advancements of technology. A key element of this is the fact that images are now more realistic and have minimal lag time which has created a better experience for the patients.

VR Training of Future Physicians

Medical schools and hospitals are increasingly using VR to train future physicians. VR can help build students’ medical skills development by providing a sufficient way to learn complicated surgical procedures. This type of training can be used for a number of surgeries, but it’s most useful when learning complex procedures. Typically, students do not get real-world experiences of being a practicing doctor until their third year of medical school, during their clinical rotations. Even then, they still have limited amount of hands-on surgical room experience.

With VR, medical schools and hospitals can create simulated surgeries to supplement the need for hands-on training for students. These simulated surgeries provide a true-to-life experience that they would only receive when entering surgical residency and give an up-close view as if they were in the room. W. Brian Sweeney, M.D. published an article called “Teaching Surgery to Medical Students,” where he concludes that “simulation can increase the learner’s knowledge base, improve decision making, teach teamwork, develop psychomotor skills … and ensure some degree of competency in the learner.” Along with operation simulations, VR can be implemented as an interactive medical training simulator. For instance, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) has created the world’s first fully interactive virtual reality training simulator. Participants are put in the role of an emergency trauma department leader where they must make quick decisions and perform surgeries under the immense pressure of saving a life. In this specific case, they use a car accident victim whose life depends on the decisions of the doctors. This is just one example of how interactive simulators in VR can help train students without jeopardizing real patients.

VR for Hospital Construction

Virtual reality is vastly changing the landscape of healthcare construction and the way renovation and expansion projects are being approached and delivered. The immersive experience offered by VR provides clarity to hospital staff, enabling them to pinpoint key elements that are most important to them and deliver the feedback in a faster and more effective manner to the architects and design team. Moving equipment in a hospital is costly and once machinery is in place often it will not get moved. For example, to move an MRI machine to a new wing of the hospital could cost upwards of $1 million dollars. Making sure the equipment is in the proper location beforehand is crucial. Currently some groups may rent out warehouses and create cardboard mockups of the new space, but this is often not as effective from a cost, quality and time perspective.

With costly medical equipment and treatment rooms, it is important that the construction of these rooms is done right. With VR, you can walk through the treatment rooms to make sure there is enough space for the equipment, medical staff and patients before the construction even starts.

For new hospital wings the benefits of this time and cost saving approach is also observed in repetitive spaces, such as patient rooms and exam rooms. If a facility has a large number of such rooms, as most hospitals do, even the smallest detail that is overlooked at time of installation can have significant repercussions, impact the budget, schedules and likely, the clients’ trust. With VR infused methods, making a seemingly slight change such as moving a trashcan to a more convenient spot in an effort to increase staff efficiently can be a significant game-changer.

Providing medical staff with an opportunity to virtually partake in the design process of the facility where they are expected to perform the most challenging and stressful work there is – saving people’s lives – is equally beneficial and rewarding.


With the vast benefits it can offer to the medical world, it’s safe to say that the use of VR in this industry is only at the surface scratch phase. As technology progresses and creativity abounds, more advances are sure to come about and spill over into patient treatments, medical staff training and construction of hospitals.