We predicted that virtual reality (VR) would be a trend in health care in 2016, and it looks like we were right. Some are calling this “the year of VR,” thanks to the wave of new, relatively affordable devices now available. Market research firm IDC projects that shipments of virtual reality devices will increase by over 2400% this year. That includes mobile headsets that are powered by smartphones as well as “tethered” headsets that are wired to a PC. Global Industry Analysts projects that the worldwide market for virtual reality in health care will reach $3.8 billion by 2020.

VR is still mainly used in video games and is not yet mainstream in health care. However, it’s gaining ground in ways that impact patients and physicians right now, from enhancing hands-on learning for medical providers to enabling experiential patient education. Here’s a look at some of the most exciting ways that virtual reality is transforming health care.

Hands-on, risk-free medical training

No patient wants his surgeon to be learning on the job, just like no airplane passenger wants the pilot to be figuring out how to fly at 30,000 feet. Simulation in medical training is “the equivalent of flight simulator training for pilots,” said Judith Hwang, an associate professor of anesthesiology who teaches at the UC Davis Center for Virtual Care.

VR is especially important for teaching rarely performed but critical life-saving procedures like CPR. VR “can open up an entirely new world of possibilities to experience the tense, real-world clinical situations which require rapid thinking and quick analysis” such as performing CPR on critically ill patients, explains Robert Glatter, MD, on Forbes.com.

VR takes simulation to new levels far beyond the traditional CPR dummy. High-tech simulation systems like “Stan,” a.k.a. “Standard Man,” used at the Center for Virtual Care, may look like a regular mannequin. But he has a pulse, normal and abnormal breath and heart sounds, pupils that are sensitive to light, and an airway that swells when exposed to a medication to which he’s programmed to be allergic, according to the UC Davis web site. With a few computer keystrokes, Stan can even be transformed into an expectant mom and experience labor difficulties.

VR is also being used for training in such complex arenas as neurosurgery procedures, where standard medical imaging is used to create 3-D virtual renderings of brain structures. This allows surgeons to preview specific patients’ surgeries prior to the operating room.

“Students, as well as physicians, can benefit from simulation training regardless of their level of expertise,” said Hwang. “Simulators allow users to try new procedures, make errors and, more importantly, learn how to recover from them. Since their ‘patients’ are never at risk, trainees become more confident and more proficient in their skills.”

Improving efficiency and reducing costs with virtual providers

Virtual reality in health care goes beyond telemedicine. In January, the University of Southern California’s academic medical center, Keck Medicine, launched its Virtual Care Clinic where doctors will be able to do more than just examine patients remotely. USC believes that much of the routine care that patients receive from their doctors can actually be delivered through artificial intelligence, reports Modern Healthcare. Wearable biosensors on patients can help form a diagnosis. An app that displays a virtual rendering of a doctor can help patients understand the pros and cons of choosing one treatment option over another.

Using a virtual doctor may seem like it would hinder, not help, doctor-patient communication, but Leslie Saxon, MD, founder and executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, believes the exact opposite is true. With this kind of technology, she told Healthline, patients could get their questions answered in an environment free from judgment. They can access information on their own time and at their own pace.

“It’s not this patriarchal system anymore where in this closed room we dictate to a patient and they’re expected to remember it … It’s more of a continuous partnership,” Saxon said.

It’s not about replacing doctors as much as allowing virtual doctors to take over some of the more repetitive tasks their human counterparts perform, Tom Jackiewicz, CEO of Keck Medicine, told Modern Healthcare. USC believes that VR technology will improve efficiency and reduce costs by allowing more patients to receive health care services through virtual providers.

Next-gen patient education

The development of breakthrough VR devices such as Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, and VRONE are taking VR past 3-D renderings on smartphones and desktops and putting the wearer directly into the action. The possible applications for patient education are vast.

The Institute for Creative Technologies is developing a virtual reality system to treat PTSD in veterans. The system immerses users in triggering combat scenarios to help them confront trauma, reports Healthline. “Exposure therapy has been shown to be a successful treatment for people suffering from PTSD and other anxiety-related disorders. But the scenarios in which trauma originate are rarely feasible to recreate. A virtual combat zone, however, provides a safe environment in which to support veterans,” the article states. VR is not a magic solution, but rather a way to build upon proven therapies to open up greater opportunities for care.

Clinical research organization Quintiles is using VR to address the problem of recruiting patients for clinical trials. The primary cause of delays in clinical trials is the failure to recruit enough patients in a timely manner. Quintiles has developed a mobile VR headset that guides patients through an interactive experience of the clinical trial, from seeing themselves sitting on a hospital bed to a view of what will happen inside their bodies.  

VR is ideal for recruiting patients for clinical trials, which involves obtaining informed consent after notifying patients of the potential risks, because it’s so vivid that patients are not only totally engaged but they retain what they learn, Quintiles’ CEO told The News and Observer.

VR-based patient education is the wave of the future, experts predict. By visualizing a situation or procedure, “it sinks in in a more visual way when [patients] have actually experienced the procedure beforehand. They become more responsible for their own healing and treatment by having a deeper understanding,” explained Mary Spio, CEO of Next Galaxy, a developer of consumer VR technology, to Forbes. Her company has partnered with Miami Children’s Hospital to develop immersive virtual reality medical instructional content to educate health care professionals as well as patients.

“I think that [VR is] going to be instrumental in the training and education of not just health care workers and medical professionals, but also patient education,” said Spio.

Not quite ready to embrace virtual reality in your practice? You can get some of the same benefits from high-quality medical animations and video. Get in touch with us today to find out how to improve your patient education with technology.