3 Unexpected Uses for Virtual Reality in Healthcare


March 10, 2017

Virtual reality in healthcare is one of the most anticipated emerging technologies today. By placing a medical professional into a virtual environment, surgeons, nurses, and doctors can gain a greater insight into the anatomy of their patients. For example, using virtual reality, a medical student may be able to explore the workings of the vascular system in a three dimensional educational exercise. The result would be a firmer understanding of the network of arteries and veins in our bodies. That’s just the beginning of virtual reality applications in healthcare.

While an educational tool may be an obvious application for virtual reality, hospitals around the world are already deploying the technology in unexpected ways. Here, we’ve gather just a handful of the surprising situations in which virtual reality is making a difference in our actual reality.

Virtual Reality In Healthcare


  • Providing an Escape for Patients: When a patient is in the hospital for an extended period of time, there isn’t much to do. They must stay in bed and count the days until their recovery. Meanwhile, the only thing the patient has to focus on is his/her pain and condition. In such instances, patients turn to television or books as a form of relaxation and escapism. Virtual reality can fill that role in a much more substantial way. Rather than lying in bed, the patient can explore natural wonders, fly through the sky, or swim beneath the ocean. A research laboratory called Cedars-Sinai is engaging in research on the therapeutic value of virtual reality with promising results. 
  • Increasing Physician Empathy: Empathy hinges on someone’s ability to step into someone else’s shoes. Embodied Labs has developed a VR application called “We Are Alfred” which allows a physician or medical student to experience what it is like to grow old. The user assumes the role of “Alfred,” a 74-year old man with audio-visual impairments, for a period of seven minutes. The narrative involves Alfred’s family confronting him about his impairments and taking him to the doctor for treatment. Ultimately, Alfred is told that the impairments are permanent. It is an emotional journey for the user and gives them a unique perspective on the aging process. 
  • Stroke Recovery: After a stroke, a patient may be left partially paralyzed, and only through extensive physical therapy can the patient regain some of their motor functions. MindMotionPro is a VR application that allows the patient to “practice” moving their limbs. Essentially, the application will prompt the user to perform simple motor tasks with their hands, like grasping a virtual ball and placing it in a bucket. While the patient may be unable to perform this maneuver with, for example, his/her right arm, he/she can complete the activity with his/her left arm, and the application will show the patient’s paralyzed arm in motion. This sort of “mirroring” is hypothesized to increase the patient’s attention, motivation, and recovery rate.


A New World of Recovery


Clearly there is value in virtual reality technology. The ability to transpose oneself into a whole new world is an excellent tool for providing perspective, increasing empathy, and even speeding recovery. We are only beginning to discover the potential of virtual reality, and in ten years’ time, it may become commonplace in hospitals around the world.

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