Virtual Reality Series: Using Simulations to Achieve Real-Life Benefits in Healthcare Part 1

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Introduction to Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Communication in the healthcare industry can improve healthcare experience and outcomes for everyone involved. Whether it’s a doctor explaining treatment options to a patient or an instructor teaching a class how to perform surgery, medical work relies on clear and effective instructions. However, in situations when verbal explanations can be complicated or difficult to follow, how do we make information easy to understand?

One technology that has cost-efficiently increased communication in clinical medicine by “showing” rather than just “telling” is virtual reality (VR). VR, also known as a virtual environment, produces simulations that help provide information to anyone from doctors and researchers to patients and students. Medical experts have leveraged these simulations to perform tasks like helping patients with rehabilitation and pain management or giving students surgery and treatment training. By placing an individual in a virtual environment, they can learn by visualizing information in addition to receiving auditory cues.

With new, cutting-edge research being produced in this field every day, VR holds much potential for expansion. The global VR healthcare market was valued at almost 4.3 billion dollars in 2020, with a projected growth to five billion dollars by 2023. This growth indicates that VR utilization in healthcare will continue to grow in the future, making VR a potential turning point in future medical endeavors and an important field to understand.

How virtual reality works

While VR takes many different forms, each variation includes three-dimensional, seemingly life-sized images that shift as a viewer moves. It’s important to distinguish VR from augmented reality, which is similar in that it uses technology to change what a person perceives but doesn’t shut out the physical world. The feeling that the viewer experiences while being immersed in and interacting with VR is telepresence, which allows them to feel like they’re actually in a different world.

VR utilizes both hardware and software in its operations. The hardware uses sensors to track movement and the software then processes that data to generate a proper response, such as changing the landscape as an individual turns their head. Telepresence is made possible by a combination of various technologies. These include but are not limited to: high-quality graphics that can change quickly in a large field of view; lasers, lights, and sensors that track eye and head movement to adjust visuals accordingly; navigation devices that allow an individual to “move” around smoothly; and sound effects via headphones.

Using complex landscape designs and automated responses, VR can be used to “create” worlds in which people can simulate realistic situations as well as fantastical ones. In this three-part series about VR in healthcare, we will explore how VR affects two main fields of healthcare: surgical practice and education, and physical and emotional therapies. Stay tuned to learn more about the applications of VR in these important parts of the medical world!