The covid pandemic and the subsequent tech boom has brought a tsunami of changes in health care, as practices like telehealth proliferated. Venture funding of digital health more than tripled from $8.1B in 2019 to $29.2B in 2021.
The next frontier may be virtual reality (VR). These technologies are expanding into health care as patients, doctors, regulators, and insurers become increasingly comfortable with digital solutions.
From rehearsing surgeries on a virtual body to allowing PTSD patients to revisit traumatic memories, VR offers a remote, immersive, and low-cost solution to some of the health space’s most pressing challenges.
What is virtual reality in health care?
What is VR?
VR refers to computer-generated simulations that are experienced as an immersive 360-degree world.
So how does it all work? VR headsets have two screens, one for each eye. Each one shows a slightly different angle of the scene displayed to create the illusion of depth.
Headsets have sensors that track where the user is looking and the speed at which they are moving their head. As the user turns their head, new images appear, much like they do in the real world. Headsets can also incorporate headphones that deliver a 360-degree soundscape to enhance the illusion of a 3D environment.
Some VR setups include controllers — one for each hand. These track the movement of the user’s hands and allow them to grab, click, or move things in the virtual world. A more advanced alternative is haptic gloves, which offer the same function as controllers and can also simulate physical sensations, such as the feeling of catching a ball or stroking a pet.
Some systems require users to set up external sensors in their room to track their body movements while others work as stand-alone systems with all the sensors built in. There are also trackers that can be attached to other objects to include them in the virtual world or to body parts like knees and wrists to make motion tracking more accurate.
Major players in the headset sector include:
- Meta - Their Quest 2 headset ($400) is a popular wireless, stand-alone device.
- HTC - Their compact, wireless, foldable model, Vive Flow ($400), connects with users’ smartphones, while the Vive Pro 2 ($1,200) is a high-end option that connects to a PC and external sensors.
- Google - Google Cardboard ($15) is an affordable alternative made out of cardboard and a pair of lenses. Users insert their smartphones into the device to interact with apps.
How is VR used in health care?
VR is often associated with gaming, but there are a plethora of use cases including safety training for workers, virtual field trips for schoolchildren, and virtual car showrooms. The global AR and VR in the health care market was valued at $2.3B in 2021 and is projected to reach $19.6B by 2030.
Headsets can be used in hospitals, clinics, or medical training facilities, or be provided to patients for home use.
At-home treatments can be used by the patient alone, facilitated remotely by a medical practitioner, or even be facilitated by artificial intelligence.
In some cases, VR treatments are proposed as a stopgap for when patients are unable to access in-person treatment, whether for financial reasons or because of a shortage of available specialists. In other cases, VR may actually be an improvement on existing treatments.
Use of virtual reality in health care
Many of VR’s most exciting uses involve alternative treatments for medical conditions.
VR can ease pain by distracting patients with soothing immersive experiences.
For example, users can be transported to somewhere peaceful like a deserted beach where they hear the sound of the waves lapping. Or they may hear a narrator guiding them through mindfulness exercises, meditation, or other therapeutic techniques that improve pain management.
This approach is already used in hospitals to comfort burn victims and during labor, surgery, cancer treatment, and dental procedures. Research suggests that VR therapy could even replace sedation for some surgical procedures.
It is also being tested on patients with ongoing pain conditions like chronic lower back pain.
Physical and occupational therapy
Physical and occupational therapy can be conducted in a virtual environment with a remote coach guiding patients through exercises. VR therapy borrows techniques from gaming to make tedious exercises fun and rewarding, increasing the likelihood that patients will stick with their treatment plan.
Stroke, injury, and postoperative rehabilitation, physical disabilities, and dementia are all candidates for VR therapy. In one study, patients with chronic spinal cord injuries regained leg movement after playing soccer using a VR avatar.
XRHealth offers virtual clinics that provide occupational and physical therapy with a remote therapist for a wide range of conditions. Vivid Vision has a more niche offering — a VR training tool for patients with a lazy eye that can be used at home or under a doctor’s supervision.
Exposure therapy and PTSD
Patients can tackle severe fears and anxieties by engaging with their triggers in a safe, custom-designed virtual environment. For example, a patient with a fear of heights may be guided to walk across a narrow footbridge virtually.
OxfordVR is currently offering AI-facilitated VR treatment for patients with psychosis who suffer from severe agoraphobia. They deliver headsets to patients’ homes where they can practice buying something in a virtual store or boarding a virtual bus. VR sessions are followed by calls with a coach who feeds their progress back to a physician.
A study found that participants with severe agoraphobia experienced significant benefit after six sessions of AI-guided virtual activities. Similarly, participants with a fear of heights had a 68% reduction in their fear after two hours of VR treatment.
Another condition that specialists are treating through VR exposure therapy is PTSD. Veterans can be transported to extremely precise simulations of traumatic memories. A small study found that 16 out of 20 patients no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after the treatment.
Anxiety and depression
VR allows people suffering with depression and anxiety to escape their daily lives and engage with a remote therapist or prerecorded guided meditations. The most effective treatments, according to a number of studies, combine calming immersive environments with a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy.
VR meditation app Tripp capitalizes on this use case by transporting users to awe-inspiring psychedelic spaces.
Surgeons can use 3D virtual simulations of surgeries to better prepare for the real thing. Doctors can also use VR to walk patients through an upcoming procedure so they know what to expect and can make informed decisions.
Surgical Theater uses 2D scan images, like MRIs, to create custom VR simulations of a patient’s brain, spine, or lungs.
There are also exciting things happening in AR, a parallel stream of technology where virtual elements are laid over real-world views. Augmedics has developed a solution for spinal surgery that gives surgeons “X-ray vision” so they can see details of the patient’s anatomy without taking their eyes off the patient.
Virtual reality simulations in health care education
Only 30% of surgeons can operate independently after residency. Less experienced bariatric surgeons have a five times higher mortality rate.
OssoVR, a surgical simulation training solution, has been found to improve surgeon speed and accuracy by 230%. It can also save money — hospitals spend as much as $400k per year on training mannequins.
Immertec has created a platform that allows doctors to virtually attend live procedures for training purposes.
Beyond treatment and training, VR is being used to:
- Distract children while they get vaccinations.
- Help doctors empathize by placing them in simulations that put them in their patients’ shoes.
- Study molecular structures in an interactive, 3D environment.
- Diagnose vision problems remotely.
Benefits of virtual reality in health care
It can transport users to places and situations that are otherwise unsafe or inaccessible.
VR allows PTSD sufferers to visit their past or a memory with an altered ending. It can take medical students inside the human brain or heart. It allows therapists to observe patients in different situations. No other technology offers this possibility.
Some treatments, like injury rehabilitation exercises, are unpleasant. VR can gamify treatment so that it is fun and patients are more likely to stick to their treatment plan.
It can be used anywhere.
For patients who live in remote places, have mobility issues, or need specialist care far from home, being able to access treatment at home is a game changer.
It can be a cost-saver.
If VR experiences can replace medication, reduce the number of hours spent with a specialist, shorten recovery periods, or improve surgical outcomes, the upfront cost of equipment and training will soon be recovered.
Disadvantages of virtual reality in health care
It’s strange and unfamiliar to patients.
Only 8% of US households own a VR headset, and only 25% are familiar with the tech. Some patients, especially the elderly, might find VR intimidating.
However, VR adoption is growing. The headset market saw 241% growth in the first quarter of 2022. Plus, various studies show that most patients who use the tech are satisfied with the results.
There are logistical challenges.
Providers need to get a headset to the patient and ensure it’s set up correctly to provide remote care. Patients may also need a strong Wi-Fi connection to run certain functions. They need to have a safe space to use it in, where they will not fall or bump into things.
In a clinical setting, medical practitioners also need to be trained to use the tech and troubleshoot if there are technical problems.
Insurers, regulators and health care providers don’t like change.
“In order to have mass adoption of the technology you need it to provide 10x value compared to the current system,” says Eran Orr, founder and CEO of XRHealth. “Not just slightly better because people resist change.”
Health care is an industry particularly resistant to change because it is a high-risk, highly regulated, and process-oriented ecosystem. “VR is very disruptive,” adds Orr. “It’s a complicated workflow that you need to change. And usually it’s not efficient at the beginning.”
Training and adjusting protocols can take time, energy, and money — and health care workers are often already overloaded.
The tech is still in its infancy.
The tech keeps changing, which means equipment quickly becomes obsolete. There are also compatibility issues between different headsets and software.
Headsets are still relatively heavy, unwieldy, and expensive. Some are tethered to PCs — although wireless models are available. Some applications can cause motion sickness.
Future of virtual reality in health care
It’s possible that a doctor will one day be able to touch and feel a torn muscle without being in the same room as the patient. That’s a very long way off. Even in the distant future, it’s unlikely that in-person treatments will be entirely replaced by virtual and AI services.
However, people will slowly start living more in VR and AR spaces. In health care, that could mean widespread adoption of headsets in every hospital and virtual home treatment available for a huge array of conditions. But it won’t happen overnight.
“I believe we’ll get to that tipping point,” says Orr, “but it will take another decade.”