Virtual reality in healthcare

By Katerina Mansour

The world has been buzzing around Meta’s plans to create a metaverse, with growing hype surrounding this phenomenon. Much of the conversation focuses on gaming, social media, shopping or artistic endeavours. However, healthcare is a vertical that will have a place in the metaverse and that has been dabbling with virtual reality (VR) already.

Indeed, virtual reality is already seen as a high-potential tool for the health sector, although adoption rates still need some work. For several years now businesses and healthcare professionals alike have been working on implementing virtual reality in healthcare. Some estimates show revenue in the virtual reality healthcare market reaching $40 billion by 2026. This growth is echoed from surveys indicating professionals plan to implement VR in healthcare. Indeed, one survey showed 51% of C-level executives plan on deploying AR/VR in their organisation.

Although the number of VR startups focused on healthcare is unknown, estimates indicate there are around 4,253 startups in the virtual reality sector. Below we’ll look at some of the many use cases these startups tackle in the medical world.


Medical training

Whether it’s for surgeons, nurses or medical students, VR is a powerful training tool. Several studies have shown improved performance, speed and accuracy in groups of medical students or professionals who underwent VR training versus those who underwent conventional training. Solutions often involve immersing the healthcare professional in a scenario to learn, for example via a surgery simulation VR tool.

Many healthcare professionals cite VR as a tool to fully validate a medical student’s skills before putting them in a real-world scenario. However, VR solutions have also emerged to help performance and accuracy during an intervention. For example, VR can help surgeons accurately visualise a patient’s anatomy before and during an operation.


Mental health

From treating phobias (like the fear of heights) to appeasing anxiety before and during an operation, VR has proven to be an appealing option. It can act as a strong distraction to help the patient focus on something calming. It can also provide an immersive experience to help patients overcome their fears. These types of VR-driven exposure therapies have also emerged to help treat addiction and PTSD. Outside of exposure therapy, VR solutions centred around mindfulness and meditation can improve one’s mental state.


Patient treatment

In addition to helping treat mental illnesses, phobias and addictions, VR can also be used as a therapeutic tool to promote a healthy lifestyle. For many chronic health conditions such as diabetes, this can prove crucial.

Alzheimer’s and dementia are also illnesses with VR therapeutic solutions. Some studies have shown VR helps reduce moments of aggression and improve interactions with caregivers for patients with dementia. There are also instances where VR helps senior patients with dementia better recall past memories by offering new stimuli.

Some startups are targeting other illnesses like amblyopia (“lazy eye”) with VR solutions. The FDA recently approved a solution offered by Luminopia to treat amblyopia. It involves having children with this visual impairment watch modified shows and movies through a VR headset to improve their vision.

As previously mentioned, virtual reality’s ability to distract or appease a patient presents benefits. It can be used before or during an intervention or treatment to relieve anxiety or pain. For example, a study showed burn patients who played a VR game experienced 35-50% less pain during treatment. Brain scans then confirmed there were reductions in pain-related brain activity. This use case applies to many medical scenarios, including childbirth.


Physical therapy and rehabilitation

VR exercises completed at home can help reduce pain from an injury or improve motor skills. These exercises can be done more regularly than in traditional sessions while ensuring the patient is following proper directives. Therefore, positive results might manifest faster.

Furthermore, physical therapy can be strenuous and hard on patient morale. By introducing a more enjoyable way to undergo rehabilitation, patients often feel more motivated and engaged with their recovery. These types of VR solutions provide personalised, precise and adaptive exercises for patients to repeat while visually engaged in a 3D environment that provides sensory stimulation.


Pain management

Chronic pain is a use case many startups are aiming to tackle. The goal for startups like AppliedVR, for instance, is to help retrain the brain through immersive experiences to overcome or better cope with pain. VR pain management solutions can apply to numerous scenarios, from phantom limb syndrome to chronic back pain.

By using VR for pain management, healthcare professionals are able to reduce the reliance on narcotics, opiates and other drugs. This is a significant benefit considering the current opioid crisis in countries such as the United States and Scotland.


Patient education

In many instances, it’s vital for a patient to fully understand a treatment or surgical intervention to be comfortable moving forward. Patient education and awareness can also play a role in ensuring proper recovery when patients must complete actions themselves (taking medication, exercising, etc.). Indeed, some startups offer VR solutions for medication adherence, for example.

Virtual reality can also help show a patient their doctor’s surgical plan in detail. This can bring clarity and comfort. Furthermore, since VR solutions can fully recreate anatomy and pathologies virtually, patients can better understand and visualise what is happening in their body.




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