How virtual reality is shaping the healthcare industry

VR is not just for entertainment. VR is creating new opportunities in the medical industry.

One of the most common misconceptions is that Virtual Reality is just for entertainment.

However, researchers, doctors and scientists from across the world have been exploring the use of VR in military and healthcare for decades. This accumulation of data has since exploded with the universal funding and adoption Virtual Reality is receiving from giants in the industry.

In turn this makes VR more affordable and accessible to the mass market, once a very big factor holding the technology back holding it back. We’re going to explore Virtual Reality in the healthcare industry and how it’s shaping the future for people across the world.

Where the technology is today

Where the technology is today

We spoke with Josh Sackman, president of Applied VR who have created a VR platform designed for clinical settings. According to Josh, VR is entering an "age of utilization” in healthcare. Like any new technology, it’s typically a toy before it’s a utility. We’re at an important moment where VR is transitioning to the latter, and health care is ultimately where we’ll see VR’s biggest impact to date on humanity.”

There’s currently three main areas when it comes to VR in the healthcare industry:

For the sake of simplicity we’ve split the applications into three main categories that can be easily distinguished.

  • Training applications
  • Therapy applications
  • Surgical applications

Without spending days delving through endless amounts of user case applications, we’ve made sure to include the hot topics in the industry, and some you didn’t think of.

Therapy Applications

Training applications

In a digital age where information is king, it’s no surprise that both medical students and accomplished medical professionals are looking to new technology to fuel the burning desire to learn.

360 Educational Videos

With numerous platforms now supporting 360 video, we’re seeing an emergent of easily accessible 360 content for practical medical use. Students no matter where they are, are able to view content using any device from mobile to pc headsets.

With video overlays and the opportunity to look around where ever they want, students are for the first time able to get up close and personal with patients, without any of the hassle that usually comes with it, like being stuck at the back not being able to get a close up view. Of course video will never be able to compensate for actually being there, however is does open doors for new interesting opportunities.


Live-streaming VR

Credit: Medical Realities

In what was the first ever live-streamed VR surgery, Medical Realities created a world first.

Members of the public, students and surgeons alike can view the surgery on their own devices, and through the use of Google Cardboard entirely immerse themselves in the operating environment. Similar to just 360 video, this is the very beginning of such an implementation.

Simulated environments

For professionals looking to train for certain situations, wanting to learn how to interact with certain patients and understand the environment they will be placed in, simulated VR environments are vital.

Doctors, surgeons and psychiatrists are learning and preparing themselves for a barrage of potential situations and its use is only on the up.

Therapy applications

By far one of the biggest in the news, and most widely talked about virtual reality therapy applications have thousands of hours of research behind them and hundreds of successful case studies to show us just how life changing it really is.


Virtual Reality Phobias

Credit: Youtube Samsung

Have an irrational fear of heights? An unexplainable fear of arachnids, people or animals? Repeated exposure therapy enables people suffering from phobias to experience them in safe environments where they can't be hurt.

In turn this eventually translates to real life where people come face to face with their fear and no longer experience the extremes of that phobia anymore (at least that's how the theory goes, in most cases it's unfortunately not as clear cut as that.)


PTSD treatment is similar in some ways to phobias The technology enables soldiers to revisit painful memories, but this time they are encouraged to develop new patterns of behaviour that will change existing beliefs with those situations. This will start them on a journey to learning new ways of thinking and behaving.

The overall outcome should result in soldiers being able to disconnect the painful memories from their past and develop new positive ones.



Credit: Tenplay

47.5 Million people worldwide are currently living with dementia. While VR may not be able to cure it, it may be able to put patients at ease.

Sonya Kim, a physician in the San Francisco Bay area has been using the technology to provide patients with experiences that take them on a virtual vacation to all corners of the world. Kim’s research suggests “It lifts the moods of patients who are so anxious and bored or depressed because they think no one cares about them. Their overall behavior is greatly altered by their digital trips, patients who were unresponsive or even violent completely change after a few VR sessions.”


Autistic patients can find it difficult to read facial expressions, pick up visual cues, deal with the intenseness of their environment, or pay attention to people around them when speaking.

VR aims to them make sense of these things through virtual simulations with 3D avatars and objects. Otherwise easy interactions which autistic patients can find complex can be worked on over time.


With the likes of headsets that can track eye movement, patents with eye problems such as amblyopia are now given the opportunity to strengthen the eye muscles, improve focusing and eye movements.

There are even games available on the market which sends images to each eye in an effort to train the lazy or crossed eye to work harder. Current research shows that patients playing these game can improve vision in their lazy eye and eventually explore the world “in 3D” for the first time.

Surgical Applications

Remote Control

VR Remote Control

Apart from training within simulated environments, surgeons are now able to perform robotic surgery with the use of VR. As a fairly recent innovation in itself, robotic surgery has been available to perform accurate and incisions, but with one caveat of being able to only view it on a screen.

VR enables to surgeon to put on a headset and see the operation through the eyes of the robot with a full 360 viewing experience. Unfortunately it may be a while before we start seeing this technology take mass adoption within VR due to the dangers of even a millisecond of latency. Until then, cross country and remote vr surgery may be a thing of the future.

Pre Visualisation

Surgeons have become really good at utilizing the latest in 3D scanning and modeling software to pre plan and prepare surgery before even making the first incision. Being able to pre visualize 3D autonomy within VR takes this a step further. Consultants can quite literally walk through the scan of a brain or body to see things in more detail than ever before.

Co working operations

There's nothing worse than having that feeling of someone being constantly over your shoulder. As is the case with many surgical operations there is sometimes a consultant or secondary surgeon in the room to provide support and second opinions.

With VR, this removes them from the room and gives them a complete view of everything. An expert consultant from halfway across the world can remote in at any second to provide crucial life saving advice.

Here’s whats holding us back...

Here's whats holding us back

While there’s plenty of advancements in the industry, it doesn't mean we don't have our fair share of limitations. Here’s just a few of the things that are currently holding us back.


Justin Barad, from Osso VR, who are paving the way for a surgical simulation platform told us that the lack of affordable access to quality headsets is currently a very big limitation.

“This is made even more challenging by the lack of access to high-quality VR with true hand-tracked interactivity such as the Oculus Rift with Touch controllers or the HTC Vive. Luckily costs are coming down at an encouraging rate.”

“Mobile VR has done a great job of becoming widely accessible and affordable, however its continued lack of positional and hand tracking and decreased performance means that it's quality is not quite what it could be.”

Ease of Use

Right now there is a clear opportunity to simplify Virtual Reality systems for clinical settings to make it easier to select and load content. Mobile systems currently do not make the grade needed, and PC-based systems which are the most immersive, are not practical due to complexity of hardware and tethered headsets that can not move freely around the health system.

Availability of Great Content

Josh from applied VR told us that the availability of quality, immersive content is just not enough right now. “We realized not any one single content creator can provide enough content to create the quantity and variety of content needed to keep a users engaged over long periods of time or accommodate the variety of needs and interests of diverse populations. There is a limited focus on VR content development in healthcare today, although we are happy to see a lot more today than we did two years ago.”

The future holds vital innovations

The future holds vital innovations

While many could speculate what the future may have in store, we decided to asked our experts what their predictions for the future of VR in the healthcare industry would be.

Lower costs and rapid advancements

Marat V. Zanov, PhD, ABPP, Director of Virtually Better, who specialises in behavioural healthcare predicts that users will directly benefit most from the rapid advancement and lower costs of VR. “The future is looking very promising.

With technology developing rapidly, combined with growing interest in virtual reality, we foresee an increase in clinical applications and product quality, as well as the concurrent overall decrease in costs that will be passed down to end users.” With lower costs this means that medical VR uses will not just be available with practitioners, but have a permanent place in people's homes.

Mixed Reality will become king

There’s a general consensus among experts within the VR industry, that VR and AR will inevitably merge into one. Mixed Reality. This theoretically should allow users to hot swap between VR and AR, eventually merging it with our everyday lives, and yes that does include healthcare too.

Patients will benefit greatly

Justin Barad from Osso VR added that the value to patients is going to be extremely valued in years to come. “As costs come down, technology improves and research continues you are going to see VR have a greater and greater role in the world of healthcare.

VR is going to provide value by decreasing the cost of care, increasing patient outcomes and improving the lives of healthcare providers and recipients.”

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here

Mankind will again endeavour to push the boundaries of what is possible. With the course we are currently on, combined with the speed and determination by thousands of individuals across the world, we have no doubt that Virtual Reality will continue to make a positive impact on healthcare.

We’re interested to hear your thoughts on VR and healthcare, including your predictions for the future. Make sure to let us know via the comments section below or via email. [email protected]

Written by VR Hardware Expert, Daniel Colaianni

Sources and references

Josh Sackman, Applied VR

Marat V. Zanov, PhD, ABPP, Virtually Better

Justin Barad, Osso VR

Olaf, VR Med -

Steve Dann, Medical Realities

Virtual Reality Society

Sonya Kim, One Caring Team

Justin Barad, Osso VR

Treating patients with dementia

VR for Amblyopia, UCSF department of ophthalmology

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