Using virtual reality (VR) in healthcare – A panoramic view


Rapidly evolving virtual reality (VR) technology is used in a wide range of medical applications today, including medical education/training, surgical simulation, psychotherapy, telemedicine, diagnostic assistance for health staff, and neurological rehabilitation and training for patients.

Unlike other simulator systems, VR has the capacity to use several stimuli to create a more realistic and 360-degree sensation of being part of the virtual world.

It can portray three-dimensional (3D) spatial information in a variety of modalities, exploit users’ natural input behaviors for human-computer interaction, and “immerse” the user in a virtual environment (VE).

The use of virtual reality (VR) in healthcare provides more realistic scenarios and stimuli that enhance the conventional exposure treatment results and lowers the barrier for participating in treatments. This post will explain how medical VR transforms the lives of patients and doctors in psychotherapy, pain management, rehabilitation, simulation, training, education, and surgery.

1. Psychotherapy

VR solutions provide new tools for psychotherapy disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), phobias, anxiety disorders, and other cognitive-behavioral disorders.

PTSD is a common disorder worldwide among refugees, peacekeepers or crisis forces, domestic violence and rape victims, accidents, and other shocking situations like mass crisis situations. These psychotherapeutic conditions are sensitive issues and could be a cause of stigmatization. Using VR exposure therapy (VRET), which simulates stressful situations, can successfully treat PTSD with promising results.

As a new tool for treating different phobias such as fear of heights, flying, needles, spiders, dental phobias, claustrophobia, social phobia, fear of driving, and arachnophobia that can cause various symptoms like panic disorder, anxiety, stress reactions, and severe disturbance to everyday life, VRET, and VRCBT (virtual reality cognitive behavior therapy) can give significant results in the treatment, compared to routine exposure therapy.

VR is also used for cognitive behavior therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who lack communication and verbal skills and have other behavioral impairments. Studies show that virtual reality cognitional training with ASD provides promising results with 100% accuracy in communicating and responding to the visual instructions in virtual drills.

2. Pain management

Acute pain is often treated by medication such as opioids and pain killers that may cause unwanted side-effects such as drowsiness, affect nutritional intake, and cause addiction to drugs if used for more extended periods. Pain can also be treated with non-medical methods such as cold treatments, relaxation, and turning the focus away from the pain by reading or listening to music.

VR is a great tool to turn pain focus away using visualization, sound, olfactory and sensory feedback. The idea is to send more different stimuli and senses to the brain to close the gates for a person to focus on pain stimulus. In this way, a patient would feel less pain.

VR studies have proven to be a useful tool to decrease the feeling of pain. In Finland in 2018, a study was conducted on patients with excruciating burn wounds. The patients were given virtual reality solutions for pain reduction to re-focus the pain feelings and reduce the amount of medication needed to avoid unwanted side-effects.

The experiment showed promising results and is expected to work with many other painful procedures, including painful cancer treatments and medical procedures, where patients should remain conscious, avoiding opioids during treatments. VR pain treatments can also help the most painful wound treatments, such as the hydro tank treatment, used to treat burn patients.

3. Rehabilitation

VR enhances the potential for rehabilitation, especially during stroke’s physical and neurological training. A study using Reinforced Feedback in Virtual Reality (RFVR) reveals that compared to conventional therapy, VR offers higher scores in post-stroke physiotherapy and rehabilitation intended to activate the patient’s movement or other disabilities as memory issues and cognitive problems caused by the damaged part of the brain.

Notably, gamification also improves patient motivation for rehabilitation. In addition to physical training, there are also solutions for cognitive and neurological training leveraging VR technologies. Studies found that VR broadens the treatments to a safer environment than the conventional treatment, providing ways to collect data and outcomes that were not possible in traditional therapy.

One significant advantage of VR rehabilitation is the possibility for remote usage. The solution can be easily used in clinics, hospitals, or patients’ homes. It eases the lack of therapist personnel resources.

4. Simulation and education

Simulation-based training for healthcare professionals provides cost-efficient, easily accessible, and modifiable mass training tools to improve speed and trauma non-technical skills. Compared to traditional training conducted with presentations and chalkboards, VR-based medical training allows users to interact and build significantly better capabilities and skills to reduce the technical mistakes caused by negligence.

It also allows us to build virtual organs or tissues and even allow us to interact with virtual patients with simulated but realistic patient conditions. The virtual patients could simulate resistant clients, sexual assault victims, PTSD patients, and many other scenarios. This showcases a considerable potential to educate better professionals with improved skills for their craftsmanship.

5. Surgery

Medical errors cause a lot of mortality and indirect costs. There are estimated to be 44 000 deaths globally every year related to wrong medication, infections, false diagnoses, humane error, device malfunction, and surgical errors. Improving surgical education with the latest technology is, therefore, very important.

Traditional training methods for surgical education are apprenticeship, using animal cadavers, and plastic mock-ups. VR technology revolutionizes surgical training with many benefits: it can be made without real patients risk-free, it reduces costs in saving operation room time and costly samples, training availability is better, variability and complication training are all possible to arrange when needed.

To sum up, let’s now summarize the key benefits of using VR in healthcare.

  • VR creates more realistic scenarios and stimuli that enhance treatment results.
  • Interactive treatment supports the treatment intensity as per patient needs.
  • VR provides totally new types of therapies and treatments, especially for people with special needs.
  • Proven to treat many phobias such as dental phobia, fear of heights, spiders, and flying
    VR analgesia reduces the unwanted side effects of drugs and eases the treatment procedures.
  • Lower the barrier for participating in treatments
  • VR training and simulations benefit education for better results. Providing risk-free training, they improve the skills and enable trainees to practice with anomalies and rare symptoms.
  • Education can be made for almost any kind of nursing activity to a virtual therapy session with avatars. Virtual persons can also be used for online patients to seek aid.
  • Helps surgeons a lot in the planning phase and easily understanding the CT images and radiologist findings. This has a significant effect on improving patient safety and reducing medical errors.