Five Ways Virtual Reality Technology Is Changing Healthcare

It’s the stuff of science fiction: robot-assisted surgery, computer-simulated combat situations and drug-injecting avatars. But thanks to today’s technology, virtual reality has become much more medical science than fiction, and it’s rapidly changing the face of healthcare.

Education and training

The demand for simulation-based medical training is projected to grow from a $670 million market in 2010 to a $2.4 billion market by 2018, according to Global Industry Analysts

Medical schools in particular are proving to be early adopters of virtual reality in their education programs. Several Arizona schools are on the cutting edge, replacing human cadavers with synthetic and holographic models and using Google Glass technology to explore the human body, according to Dr. Jay Conyers, CEO of the Maricopa County Medical Society

Conyers notes that University of Arizona graduates were among the first in the nation to test a prototype of Google Glass for teaching anatomy. A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine offers students the chance to learn in a virtual anatomy lab and the Creighton University School of Medicine, Phoenix Regional Campus, uses synthetic human cadavers for doctor training.

In the continuing education and training space, doctors, nurses and technicians are turning to virtual reality to learn the latest techniques, like pediatric intubation, using simulators. 

Assisted surgery

Another common use of virtual reality in healthcare is robot-assisted surgery. In 2013, 422,000 surgeries in the U.S. were reported to have used robotics, up 15 percent over the previous year.

With origins dating to 1985, the technology standard today is the da Vinci Surgery System, approved by the FDA in 2000 for general laparoscopic surgery. The system is designed to perform minimally-invasive surgery. It’s controlled by a surgeon from a console and uses 3D cameras to magnify the surgical site and computers to translate the surgeon's hand movements to the robotic instrument. 

Clinical programs

In clinical settings, doctors are using virtual reality to diagnose disease progress in patients with chronic conditions such as atherosclerosis.  

“When doctors perform coronary angiography, in what’s often called a ‘cath lab,’ they can now utilize a catheter that has a tiny ultrasound probe on the end, allowing them to carry out intravascular ultrasound,” said Conyers. “Over time, doctors can determine if the disease in a patient’s coronary arteries is spreading or being effectively treated with medication, by virtually visualizing the inside of the artery wall and assessing the ‘elasticity’ of the heart’s artery walls.”

Similarly, pathologists can recreate tissue sections taken from biopsies and digitally produce 3D representations of tissues, organs or arteries. This helps doctors to determine the extent of disease throughout a biopsied region of the body, and to tailor targeted therapies based on disease locations.  

Rehabilitation and therapy

From treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to heroin addiction, new technologies are using virtual reality to immerse patients in a safe, computer-generated environment for exposure therapy and training. 

In a recent study funded by the Office of Naval Research, therapists used a virtual-reality program called “Bravemind” to insert triggers that stimulate the original traumatic experience for combat veterans. Sixteen of the study’s 20 participants showed improvement in their PTSD symptoms.

At the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work, researchers are helping people overcome drug addiction using realistic virtual worlds to recreate situations that trigger cravings for addictive substances from alcohol and cigarettes to marijuana and heroin.

3D printing

From 3D printed prosthetics and 3D printed medical implants, to 3D printed medical imaging used to help guide surgeons during a procedure, the use of new technology in healthcare seems nearly limitless. As such, the industry has seen a recent rash of mergers and acquisitions that bring together software and hardware companies to create new applications for 3D printing.

What’s next? Dr. Conyers believes the next generation of virtual reality in healthcare will make further advances in medical education and training, behavioral health and even patient empowerment.