Advances of Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Virtual reality (VR) has been around in a basic form for 50 years in healthcare. It began as a system to offer simple simulations for physician training, mainly offering a visual and auditory experience when conducting a particular procedure. However, this was both costly and time consuming to set up and run and was therefore only affordable at the largest hospitals.

Later on, as technology improved and costs fell somewhat, training and education via simple VR was extended to other healthcare professionals, such as nurses, counselors, paramedics and even patients, offering a much more “immersive” experience than using classroom demos or videos. However this was still relatively expensive and limited in terms of its reach.

Coming more up to date, in the last 15 years or so, VR been used more extensively to perform a range of relatively simple functions. These include treating patients with phobias, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with varying levels of overall success.

The results in these areas has been mixed with phobias (and the treatment of fears such as having to get on a plane, overcoming a fear of heights, dealing with claustrophobia and crowds being most successful). But in addition, some inroads have been made to other related but more interesting areas such as social cognition training for individuals with autism, children suffering from ADHD, and older adults needing rehabilitation after a stroke.

In the last 3–4 years there has been a huge uptake in general interest in the subject of virtual reality, mainly thanks to ever more cost-effective head-mounted display (HMD) products developed by several large companies such as Google, Samsung, Sony and others. With the relative cost effectiveness of content for these HMD sets now, high quality VR experiences are therefore possible at very reasonable prices.

This has meant that what looked like a product that only had narrow application, and mainly in the gaming world, has now become interesting to many more parts of the healthcare system. In general, however, VR seems to have high applicability and interest in the following medical practice areas:

Personal Fitness/Recovery

There are many VR applications to increase fitness, including from a low/unhealthy base. This includes simple workouts in a person’s living room to developing muscles while being distracted doing something else.

Physical Rehabilitation

People who have been in vehicle accidents can be helped considerably by VR in offering “stretch” scenarios in the headset world that help to accelerate muscle recovery as well as build mental toughness and persistence more rapidly.

Treatment for PTSD

Many hospitals and clinics are now using virtual reality simulations of warfare to help veterans to deal with the trauma they experienced in a safe and controlled climate, and allowing them to develop new healthier reaction behaviors

Pain management

Pain is a very broad issue and can range from relatively minor (such as cuts or wounds, for example) but persistent (and therefore debilitating) to relatively major (such as a major burns, for example). In this climate VR is mainly used as a distraction therapy, largely by overwhelming the brain’s pain sensors and even eliminating the need for morphine in some cases.

Brain damage assessment

Although VR is in its infancy in this area, the interest in its future use here may be higher than anywhere else. This is because VR can so quickly test neuropsychological theories and hypotheses relating to particular patients or simulate a scene to assess whether a patient responds in a positive or negative way. This includes brain responses when certain drug treatments have been given.


Although not all autistic people on the very broad spectrum can be helped by VR, social skills can be taught more rapidly for many of them by using brain imaging and brain wave monitoring as they are given social scenes and cues that are “riskier” to try in the real world.

Relaxation and Meditation

The use VR to relax (ahead of an operation, for example) by putting them into a scene in the headset that will be real later is now well-proven. However, this relaxation therapy can be extended much further and even teach people how to breath more calmly and mediate more effectively, with many beneficial health outcomes.

Opportunities for the disabled

This is one of the most obvious uses and ranges from dealing with phantom limb syndrome to using VR to provide experiences in the headset that could not be experienced physically (and therefore generate joy or confidence in the process (such as simulating playing a game of tennis when a patient has no arms for example).

Restricted movement/housebound

In theory, people can go anywhere and do almost anything through a VR headset. While this may be a problem for parents and their gaming children, this may be a huge improvement in the quality of life for a senior with little ability to go out or one who is house/home bound.


Virtual reality in healthcare has a long way to go before it becomes a mainstream choice in healthcare. But although its use in the last 5 years in particular has been much greater, hospitals and other provider organizations will only continue to use it more widely and seriously where they can either see tangible cost savings (less time, resources or drugs for example) or more revenue side opportunities arising from it (greater speed of recovery, for example meaning there is an opportunity for other patients to be seen).

VR is likely to be increasingly ready to demonstrate its worth, however, and will continue to evolve technologically in the meantime (including the greater use of sensors, the consequently richer analysis of big data and the development of more arterial intelligence. These are therefore exciting times for VR in healthcare.

Dr. Jon Warner

CEO-RX4 Group-The Business of Healthcare

Jon is the CEO of RX4 Group based in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at

Originally published at on November 13, 2015.