Virtual reality has transformed the world of video games and entertainment, and is also being used in various other sectors, ranging from interior design to tourism. But aside from these “fun” applications, VR is also being used to help tip the scales in potentially life and death situations.

For example, the American Society of Safety Professionals has created a VR app that provides construction workers with more realistic training on fall safety. (To put this in perspective, the majority of construction site deaths — 40% — are the result of falls.)

But perhaps nowhere are the opportunities to tip the scales in life and death situations more numerous than in healthcare. Even when the stakes aren’t quite that high, innovations in this field can benefit all of us. And fortunately, VR is revolutionizing healthcare in ways that can result in more skilled physicians, innovative treatment options and improved patient care. (AI is also making waves in this field. Learn more in The 5 Most Amazing AI Advances in Health Care.)

Surgical Training

Between med school and residencies, surgeons spend a lot of years learning and training. And surgical simulation can greatly enhance the training process. “The benefits of virtual reality and high-quality content which solves a real world problem are evident in the area of healthcare,” according to Danny P. Goel, MD, the CEO and co-founder of Precision OS, which provides VR orthopedic surgical education and preoperative planning software. “There is a real disconnect between combining cognitive and technical skills in current models of simulation,” says Goel, who is also a clinical associate professor at The University of British Columbia Department of Orthopedic Surgery.

However, Precision OS, which has partnered with several medical institutions, including The Mayo Clinic, The Boston Shoulder Institute and The University of British Columbia, has created three types of simulation platforms:

  • The Arthroplasty Platform allows surgeons to become familiar with patient anatomy, identify precision metrics and perform virtual surgery, without the use of a live patient.

  • The Patient-Specific Anatomy Platform lets the surgeon perform surgery with data before the procedure. This customizes the patient worked on in the simulation and tailors the exercise to help with a specific upcoming procedure.

  • The Trauma Platform focuses on fracture configuration, screw trajectory and plate position with regard to trauma surgery. In-depth evaluations and options can be recommended and performed as a test.

Surgeons can gain operating experience at any time and in any location. “With a plan to disrupt, we’re attempting to impact the healthcare disparities that exist all around the world,” Goel says.

And he’s not the only person who believes that technology may be advancing at the speed of light, but often, training for healthcare professionals hasn’t kept up. “Physicians still view medical imaging from 2D or 2.5D views, much like they have since the introduction of the technology,” says Mike Harper, executive vice president and CMO of zSpace, a technology firm that combines virtual and augmented reality. “This creates an inherent limitation as the screen or viewer becomes a barrier to the 3D content that is the reality of the anatomy and often acquired in the scanning process.”

However, zSpace is removing that limitation, and Harper says it is reinventing how clinicians can view and interact with patient-specific anatomy, which improves diagnosis and provides more precise planning. “With partners like EchoPixel, Neurotargeting, Galgo Medical, Radial3D, and Boston Scientific, we’re working to change how clinicians and researchers understand and explain form, function and flow of patient-specific anatomy.”

Techopedia reached out to one of zSpace’s partners. EchoPixel focuses on advancing care for congenital heart patients. “Our flagship product, True3D, provides a 3D interactive holographic experience that facilitates precise and personalized procedural planning using surgical views,” explains Sergio Aguirre, CEO and founder of EchoPixel. “It provides the potential to convert inoperable patients to operable, reduce procedure time, and enhance patient engagement,” he explains. “The ability for surgeons to better understand the complex anatomy of congenital heart defect patients allows them to do more surgeries with less risk and a more predictable outcome.”

The platform has been cleared by the FDA and is used in many hospitals, including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Primary Children’s Hospital, C.S. Mott Hospital and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

Patient Communication

In addition to helping physicians hone their surgical skills, VR is also helping health professionals develop their communication skills. Cortney Harding is the founder and CEO of Friends With Holograms, which provides VR technology for training. The company has teamed with Accenture to create a program to teach soft skills. “During VR training, a doctor sits in the room with a patient and is able to choose questions to ask and conversation paths to pursue,” she says. “For instance, they can practice informing a patient of a terminal illness and dealing with a variety of reactions; they could also practice having conversations with parents who read propaganda on Facebook, or they can have empathic conversations about weight loss.”

Pain/Emotion Management

But VR isn’t limited to healthcare professionals. It is also being used directly with patients, in the form of pain management therapy. “Our partner, Limbix, has proven that VR is a powerful tool for immersion therapy and growth mindset training,” says Rachel Lanham, COO of Pixvana, a VR solutions provider for training. “By creating the sensation of actually experiencing stress-inducing situations, VR can help patients learn to manage their reactions, from fear of heights to substance abuse to social anxiety.”

And VR can also make health professionals more empathetic to the pain of their patients.

“Where we see the most possibilities is when the powers of VR — presence, empathy, and immersion — really come into play,” Lanham says. “We are particularly bullish about VR video — we’ve seen frontline healthcare workers quickly build empathy for patients in crisis through experiencing scenarios from the patient’s perspective.” (For more on uses like these, see How AI Is Enhancing Wearables.)

Increased Quality of Life for Seniors

Many seniors have limited mobility, but VR can transport them to the destination of their choice. “While the research on VR’s impact is in the relatively early stages, studies are beginning to show the effects of VR on happiness and wellness,” says Chris Brickler, CEO of MyndVR, a health and wellness company providing virtual reality solutions to senior living communities, home health care agencies and directly to older adult consumers.

MyndVR uses VR to provide quality experiences. “We focus on creating content that takes seniors out of the four walls of their existence in care communities and engages them in a way that keeps their minds active and indulges their curiosity,” he says. “We’re seeing VR working in a number of therapies — reminiscence, music, art, nature, pet, et cetera, and it allows for connections and has a lot of promise for cognitive health with the aging population.”

So, is it working? Brickler says a report by one of MyndVR’s customers shows a 25% positive behavior change in patients; another study shows a 50% positive reaction to VR in a memory care setting.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ebbe Altberg is chief executive officer of Linden Lab, which develops platforms for virtual experiences. While VR has made great strides in mental and physical health, Altberg believes we’re just now beginning to even realize its full potential.

“As the technology heads down-market — adapts to 5G, more accessible form factors like mobile, becomes cheaper — I think we’ll find more and more patients turning to virtual worlds for kinship and connection, these are places where they can connect with others that may share their conditions, and where they can enjoy a greater degree of mobility.”

Second Life, by Linden Labs, is a virtual world game where people, including those with disabilities, have created worlds and communities to meet, share ideas and explore together. “But we know the applications stretch even farther: group therapy in a virtual setting; virtual counseling for housebound patients; amazing uses for everything from PTSD, phobias, and pain management to physical therapy in the wake of traumatic injuries — like lost limbs — and neurological conditions like Parkinson’s; even dementia,” Altberg says.

“Virtual worlds will soon become an essential bridge between healthcare providers and the patients they serve — a way to remain connected and seek care, wherever you are in the world,” he predicts.