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The Rise of Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Healthcare and Technology Trends

It appears the imagined future in the 1966 film classic Fantastic Voyage has finally become reality. Virtual reality (VR)—a computer-enabled technology that simulates 3D interactive virtual environments—is rapidly emerging as a real game changer in healthcare, where the technology is particularly well suited for quick adoption.

In specialties like neurosurgery, physicians are now able to “navigate” through the brain of a patient prior to surgery using a hyper-real digital simulation of the patient’s brain. This enables neurosurgeons to map out a 3D image of the brain’s structure, which facilitates navigating around tumors, aneurysms, blood vessels and delicate brain tissue during actual surgery.

A diverse range of applications

The range of applications for VR technology in healthcare is immense. In addition to surgery, VR is already being used in advanced medical training and education, to help plan for rehabilitation therapy or radiation therapy, and in the treatment of various addictions and phobias.

Robotic assisted surgery enables surgeons to better visualize the anatomy of the area being treated, thereby reducing medical errors. Other VR applications can facilitate distance diagnosis and remote treatment. In reconstructive surgery VR allows patients to see the potential outcome of any operation.

Non-life-threatening conditions such as agoraphobia and chronic acute anxiety are being investigated as good candidates for VR treatment. VR can even help new mothers prepare for the potential challenges that can arise with breastfeeding.

A revolution for medical training

VR systems enable medical trainees to experience realistic 3D medical emergency scenarios and acquire hands-on experience with complex medical procedures without also being subjected to the risk of making errors in a real world setting.

Just as commercial airline pilots train using sophisticated flight simulators, physician trainees can use VR technology to practice and hone their skills at their own pace. Training tasks can be monitored and tracked to ensure competency has been reached before allowing a trainee to operate on real patients, i.e., surgical skills assessment without the traditional risks. VR may enable reducing the number of cadavers needed by medical schools.

VR can also be used to train for handling mass casualty scenarios or accidents in unusual industrial settings, which require urgent and accurate triage responses.

Strong growth potential

Overall projected increases in healthcare spending are expected to drive further investment in VR, which helps reduce training costs and medical errors over time. VR is poised for continued growth across the healthcare industry in both the U.S. and emerging economies such as India and China, where rapidly expanding healthcare markets will fuel its adoption.

Recent projections indicate that the worldwide market for virtual reality in healthcare is slated to reach $3.8 billion dollars by 2020—a strong indicator for just how much demand for this innovative tool is expected to increase. With these projections, there will be an opportunity for new medical roles as well as career advancements.


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  • Doug Bennett