Oculus Rift Prototype - Flickr

Virtual reality (VR) research and development in the medical field started to catch hold in the late 1990s when VR headsets were being marketed to the public. Since then, VR has been used in a range of healthcare-related applications. The applications are not just related to treatment and training. More recent applications of VR are being explored in the medical diagnostics arena.

PTSD Treatment

According to TechRepublic, clinics and hospitals are using VR simulations of warfare akin to Iraq and Afghanistan to help veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In a safe and controlled environment, veterans can learn how to deal with instances that might otherwise be triggers to behavior that could be destructive to themselves and others.

Medical Training

Virtual reality is allowing medical professionals to practice procedures in a way that is less risky for patients and more cost effective for hospitals and clinics. Fortune reported that VR company Next Galaxy Corp has partnered with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital to develop VR medical instructional software for procedures like cardiopulmonary resuscitation, nasal gastric tube insertion, Foley catheter insertion, intubation, starting an IV, wound care, and the Heimlich maneuver.

Stanford University has taken it one step further by leveraging VR for surgical training. Stanford’s Surgical Simulation allows surgeons to practice surgery on a virtual patient and experience realistic sights, sounds, and forces like they were actually in the operating room.

Although still in its early days, VR usage is paying off. According to Dr. Narendra Kini, CEO at Miami Children’s Health System, the retention level a year after a VR training session can be as much as 80 percent, compared to 20 percent retention after a week with traditional training. Kini says people are actually creating memories. So, it’s like they’ve done the procedure before.

In addition to increasing skills, VR training also helps hospitals and medical facilities reduce costs. Mary Spio, CEO of Next Galaxy, says that medical professional training and proficiency are a large part of healthcare costs. For example, the 65,000 elderly care facilities in America currently spend on average $3,000 per employee to learn tracheal insertion. Tracheal insertion training in VR, which also eliminates the need to travel to specialized training centers, costs just $40 per employee. Because healthcare knowledge doubles every six to eight years, there will be an ongoing need for new proficiency training.

Medical Diagnostics

Researchers at the University of Bonn are working on a VR test that could be used to monitor the very earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease in people aged 18 to 30. The researchers studied interactions between parts of the brain linked to navigation and memory then compared the results across participants who had different genetic likelihoods of developing the disease. They found that those with a higher genetic likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s showed different neural activity during the trial.

In work related to glaucoma, researchers at the Donald K. Johnson Eye Centre at Toronto Western Hospital are utilizing VR equipment to develop a test that could diagnose glaucoma in its early stages. “Currently, ‘early’ detection of glaucoma isn’t actually occurring in its earliest stage,” says Dr. Martin Steinbach, the principal investigator in the study.  Consequently, the study focuses on peripheral vision and vection that is made possible by peripheral vision, because glaucoma first affects peripheral vision. Vection is like an illusion where a large moving scene can make the viewer feel like he or she is also moving. In early results, patients who had mild glaucoma showed that vection was either impaired or completely absent.

Market research company Technavio forecasts the global VR market in healthcare to grow at a CAGR of 19.37 percent over the period 2014-2019. Therefore, the medical field to date is just scratching the surface of VR applications.

If you’re interested in other ways that technology is enhancing medicine and your health, take a look at this post:

8 Ways Technology Is Improving Your Health


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Oculus Rift Prototype, Flickr)