Virtual Reality in Health Care Makes Medical Reality Easier to Endure

by Cory Mogk
- Jun 19 2017 - 5 min read
A patient tries the Rendever virtual reality headset.
Courtesy Rendever

Few people relish a trip to the doctor or hospital, and even fewer look forward to twilight years potentially spent in an assisted-care facility. But if next-generation technologies in health care could make those experiences better, getting a whiff of that unmistakable antiseptic hospital smell might not be so bad.


Several companies exploring 3D technologies, augmented reality, and virtual reality in health care certainly hope so. Any technology or advancement in health care has two primary sets of stakeholders: the doctors/caregivers and the patients. And for 3D technologies, AR, and VR, that’s no different. For doctors and other caregivers, these technologies are driving big leaps forward in training and education. For patients, it’s all about greater engagement and enhanced healing, rehabilitation, and comfort.

Educating Caregivers With New Technologies for Augmented Reality in Health Care

A view of the BioDigital Human brain exemplifying use of augmented reality in healthcare.
A view of the BioDigital Human brain. Courtesy BioDigital.

Training health-care practitioners using 3D imagery is highly effective, as medical-imaging pioneer Dr. Maki Sugimoto and others have found. After all, 3D models are more effective than pictures in a textbook, because students can move and explore the models as they would real cadavers—without the mess.

One company enabling 3D exploration is BioDigital, often called the Google Maps of the human body. “Doctors and patients alike are inundated with information,” says BioDigital CEO Frank Sculli. “With 3D, we can make the content more engaging, which leads to increased understanding and retention.” BioDigital’s cloud-based Human 3D model features more than 5,000 anatomical objects to explore, and more than 2,500 schools are using the platform to educate and train students.

Another company using 3D technology to democratize health-care education and care is Open Simulation, which is developing an affordable laparoscopic surgical-training simulator. The company’s mission is to train 2.2 million surgical staff to help the 5 billion humans who lack adequate surgical care. “Affordability, real-time interaction, and 3D visualization are the most appreciated features of our solution,” says Yeshwanth Pulijala, Open Simulation’s head of medical visualization.

Medical Augmented Intelligence provides interactive 3D models of the human body—this time, to train practitioners of acupuncture. A student can move his or her hand around the digital human’s body in VR, accessing an x-ray view of the muscles and nerves where the acupuncture needle should go. “It’s really difficult for students to get over the conceptual hurdle to full understanding,” says Sam Jang, Medical Augmented Intelligence CEO and founder. “Many acupuncture points cure various symptoms based on different angle and depth. For example, the acupuncture point ST36 has three different approaches to cure three different symptoms. And each approach requires a different angle and depth.”

A 3D model of acupuncture points
A view of acupuncture points on a 3D model. Courtesy Medical Augmented Intelligence.

Beyond the individual’s understanding, 3D technologies provide a more collaborative, augmented-reality experience. “Our platform allows students and instructors to gather and interact in this virtual space without physically going to the training facility,” Jang says.

Engaging Patients With Breakthrough Experiences

Just as 3D, VR, and AR are enabling new types of medical training, several companies are using these technologies to engage patients in learning, rehabilitation, and therapy to deal with things like pain, aging, and anxiety.

Floreo offers a collaborative system to help children with autism develop skills to support their independence. The child uses a phone-based VR system like Google Cardboard, and the supervising adult uses an Apple iPad to drive the lesson. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive from families and children with ASD who have tried the VR experience,” says Floreo cofounder and CEO Vijay Ravindran. “We see a major benefit in VR-based therapy because the environment can be managed and tailored to the individual.”

Child testing Floreo's virtual reality in medicine platform.
Floreo’s VR platform helps children with autism. Courtesy Floreo.

Companies such as Rendever and BuildVR are demonstrating that virtual reality in health care is not only for the young—they are creating tools to help elders improve their well-being through cognitive stimulation, new experiences, and the opportunity to go beyond the confines of their body or care facility. BuildVR cofounder Marc Pascal remembers a particularly moving experience with an elderly Italian gentleman, who cried when removing the SolisVR goggles: “He had given up on ever returning to Venice and felt like he was there in a gondola. He asked when he could do the experience again.”

Light and easy to use, the SolisVR device is comfortable for patients—even for the initially reticent. “We’ve had some residents refuse to try, then change their mind once they see other residents enjoying it and loving it,” Pascal says, noting that the bigger challenge with VR for older adults is the content. “It must be relevant, well-shot or well designed, visually interesting, and easy to use. Combining these attributes is critical.”

“Designing VR for older adults is unique with both the software and content,” says Dennis Lally, cofounder and CEO of Rendever. “VR can be isolating, but with our software, we make it a social experience that people can share together. We worked with an individual who struggles with dementia and typically struggles to speak. We brought him back to a few locations he’d visited in his past, and he began describing stories in fine detail.”

Expanding Adoption Through Research into Virtual Reality and Medicine

Despite the early excitement around VR and other technologies, large-scale adoption of virtual reality in health care requires a wealth of documented research. “There is a lot of theoretical value of VR, but we need clinical studies that can demonstrate both the clinical and economic value to health-care providers to create mass adoption,” says Josh Sackman, president of clinical VR content provider AppliedVR. “While VR is new to many, over 20 years of academic research suggests how VR can help patients and practitioners. It takes a lot of education and building awareness—along with continuous advancements with science and research—to encourage acceptance.”

AppliedVR conducts VR research on usability and effectiveness and publishes case studies and white papers on everything from preprocedural anxiety to depression. DeepStream VR, a research project of VR-tech company Firsthand Technology, explores VR for pain management, physical therapy, and rehabilitation. Some of its research has found that VR can change the opioids in the brain, delivering increased pain relief without using narcotics like morphine, which are addictive and have diminishing effectiveness over time.

As more research comes to the fore, VR and other technologies will proliferate in all areas of medicine and patient care. Whether being used for practitioner education or patient engagement, health care is waiting to be revolutionized.

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