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A new reality: 5 ways VR is shaping the future of healthcare

Once the domain of video gamers, virtual reality is now a vital technology changing the face of many businesses and industries. Perhaps nowhere are the changes and revolutionary and the possibilities offered by VR as exciting as in the field of health. Check out these 5 ways virtual reality is already revolutionizing healthcare as we know it.

1. Doctor training

Imagine being able to participate in a groundbreaking surgery from the other side of the world. Thanks to VR technology, doctors, nurses and medical students can experience everything an operating surgeon is seeing and doing in real time, without ever setting foot in the hospital where the procedure is taking place. This application has tremendous potential for the sharing of new techniques and technologies, as well as for hands on-training.

Similar to the way in which pilots train in flight simulators, using virtual patients in a simulated environment to learn and practice new techniques allows doctors to develop essential skills, gain confidence, and develop familiarity with complex procedures without the risk to real patient lives.

2. Improving the patient experience

Undergoing medical procedures and being hospitalized can be a stressful, even traumatic experience for many patients. Virtual reality can improve the patient experience in many ways. Those worried about an upcoming treatment or procedure can prepare by experiencing it in VR before the real thing, all from the comfort and safety of their hospital room or doctor’s office, reducing the fear of the unknown.

Claustrophobia during MRIs and other procedures in enclosed spaces are greatly reduced through VR – the patient can choose to immerse themselves in a beach setting, enjoy scenic mountain views, or follow a guided mediation journey to reduce stress.

Patients hospitalized or recovering at home for long periods can escape from the everyday, connecting with friends and family in a simulated environment, or travelling beyond the confines of their bed to any destination of their choosing – real or imagined.

3. Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a highly effective treatment for many forms of anxiety, PTSD, and certain phobias. Virtual reality technology allows medical professionals to expose patients to whatever stimulus causes their distress – from spiders and thunderstorms, to simulated flights or realistic war zones – in a safe and controlled environment. The length of exposure and the intensity of the experience can gradually be increased as patients grow more comfortable, and through VR can be tailored specifically to each person’s unique situation and needs.

4. Developing caregiver empathy

Caregivers and healthcare professionals do their best to understand what their patients are going through, but can they really understand what it feels like to be visually impaired, live with a physical disability or manage the pain of childbirth? Thanks to virtual reality, healthcare providers can experience the symptoms and side effects of many conditions and medications, helping them develop more empathy for those they are treating, as well as offering insights into developing or improving treatment plans better suited to their patients’ specific needs.

5. Physical rehabilitation

Virtual reality has been proven a very effective tool in rehabilitation programs, particularly in patients with brain damage from stroke or injury. Cognitive function, memory, gross motor skills and fine motor skills may all improve through the use of VR programs that have been designed to stimulate specific areas of the brain and train the patient to re-learn lost of forgotten functions.

One of the most fascinating developments in the rehab field is the use of VR to treat «phantom limb» syndrome in amputees, who often develop the sensation of debilitating pain in the missing limb. Through virtual reality, patients can «see» their missing limb and experience the sensation of controlling it through everyday tasks, which seems to trick the brain into thinking the limb is intact, reducing or eliminating the phantom pain.