Virtual reality (VR), once known solely as a gaming and entertainment technology, is making waves in the healthcare sector. VR has uses across the full spectrum of healthcare, including treatment and training. Early experiments with VR have seen it improve the patient experience during surgery, outcomes for special needs individuals and medical school education.

VR for pain relief

For example, women in labour have been offered VR as a way to manage the pain of childbirth without medication. The University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff is trialling VR devices as an alternative, and, if successful, the technology will be rolled-out across the rest of Wales. As some mothers have testified, using VR helps them enter a state of relaxation and distract them from any pain. Given the lack of medication, this reduces the risk to both mother and baby of any side effects.

VR as a treatment tool

VR can also provide ongoing care assistance, particularly for those with special needs. The VR platform Floreo, for instance, was developed by two special needs parents who noticed that their son, who has autism, was obsessed with VR. Floreo has games and activities that help autistic people practice responding in different social situations and building relationships, calm themselves and improve their situational awareness.

Some of these activities immerse them in real-world scenarios like interacting with the police or crossing a busy road, and others work on their imitation and non-verbal skills. Offering a ‘safe place’ for people who cannot otherwise practice their skills in the real-world without fear of reprisal, anxiety-inducing situations or danger.

VR in medical school

There are also uses for healthcare professionals, namely in improving medical education worldwide. Medical students at Case Western University already have access to VR devices that help them understand human anatomy without cutting into a cadaver.

Not only can VR increase the accessibility of educational materials (like rare operations) but it can also increase the quality of education. Whereas before, a handful of medical students would watch an operation over the shoulder of the surgeon performing it, now they can see everything in detail and practice carrying it out themselves. With VR, medical students can also watch operations happening somewhere else in the world.

A patient-eye view

VR can also help healthcare professionals understand the point-of-view and experiences of a patient. They can experience life with dementia, for instance, or Parkinson’s. Living such conditions through VR can help medical students develop empathy and understand the challenges of living with chronic conditions.

Pushing the boundaries of medicine

Medical VR has many fascinating possibilities that are pushing the boundaries of medical education and patient care. Several early adopters are already benefiting from the technology and more will follow, as the technology gains mainstream attention and becomes more advanced.

Combined with other technology like wearables and artificial intelligence (AI) it is transforming our very notion of healthcare. Making people feel better, whether that’s in labour or everyday life. A distance away from video games and entertainment – VR is having a positive impact on healthcare professionals and patients’ lives.

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