Virtual Reality in the Medical Field

Before I began researching virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), I knew very little on the subjects of each and even had to look up the definitions. I was aware that Google was working to produce glasses called, Google Cardboard, Sony was also working to produce their own version called, PlayStation VR. I looked at multiple definitions of each of the three realities, virtual, augmented and mixed and have compiled all the information into an easily understandable explanation. Virtual reality is a virtual world that stimulates sight and sound through a computer system. Augmented reality is an enhanced generated material through the computer, which is then overlaid on to the real world. Lastly, mixed reality or also known as the hybrid reality is the mix of environments where physical and digital interact with each other in real time. These three are shown in the image below to give you a clearer understanding.

What is the difference between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality? – Quora.(n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2018,

Most people know these products for only enhancing their gaming experience; however, there is much more to these realities than just game enhancement. While gaming can enhance one’s feeling of involvement in an action-packed world, VR has also been incorporated into product design, real estate, military training and even the medical field. The medical field has begun incorporating virtual reality in many ways as alternative treatments. Some areas VR is being incorporated in the medical field are: pain management, physical therapy, phobias, anxiety, and even in-depth hands-on procedures to help train medical staff. For this paper, I will be focusing on VR within the medical field as well as my first experience using virtual reality, projection of this industry, where virtual reality is being used in the medical field, and then finalize it all by explaining my thoughts on virtual reality in the medical field.

Prior to my research on VR, AR, and MR I never experienced the virtual reality world, so I went to the Innovation Hub at Florida State University to get a better understanding of how this could take the medical field by storm. While at the Innovation Hub I met with one of the interns who started showing me all the numerous applications there are in the medical field and what the descriptions were for each. These applications ranged in monetary value from free to a hundred dollars and the price range for each was dictated by the quality of the image, how in depth each procedure was and how long the product had been on the market. I was unable to purchase any of them, so I used a free app that allowed me to imitate knee and ankle surgery. To begin, I placed the headset on which consist of headphones and goggles to project the sound and image. Once I placed the headset on, I was immediately blinded by a white light. Once my eyes came into focus, I realized I was in what seemed to be a surgical room. I then turned 180 degrees and saw the table with surgical tools which I had to physically walk around to be able to get to the tools. Once I walked to the table full of surgical tools, I clicked a button on the hand wand I was holding. It grabbed a tool and I started receiving step by step instructions on where to place the

device to create the incision. The application not only counted down each step but when you made an incision, it told you the accuracy of the incision. At the end of the procedure, it gave me an overall score and how many times you completed the surgery. After completing the procedure, I took the headset off and couldn’t believe how precise this free application was and how much the hundred-dollar apps would help train you to do these expensive and time-consuming procedures. Finally, getting to experience the virtual world made me realize that this technology and this market is much bigger than I could have ever imagined.

After my experience of completing virtual surgery, I understood why the market for virtual applications are growing so quickly. Virtual and augmented reality is rapidly growing because of the increasing investments in new developments and technologies in the medical field. Some of the techniques that are being created with virtual reality are surgical, health management, patient care, and physical therapy/rehabilitation. Designers have created various applications to help medical staff better understand the procedure of complicated surgeries that mandate precise movements with knives and surgical tools; as well as helping patients with different types of phobias. Due to the awareness of health care providers, these new technologies are also being implemented in countries like China and South Korea which will lead to a substantial virtual and augmented reality growth. According to Grand View Research, as of May of 2016, the virtual and augmented reality medical industry is estimated at 568.7 million USD and has an expected growth rate in the next nine years of 29.1%. Below is an image from of the monetary growth of AR and VR.

Augmented Reality (AR) & Virtual Reality (VR) in Healthcare Market Report, 2025. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2018,

* Augmented Reality * Virtual Reality

Even though some applications and learning tools currently exist using augmented reality and virtual reality, there is an expectation of future growth in categories such as surgical applications, rehabilitation, training/medical education, simulations and virtual reality exposure therapy. As the cost of virtual reality decreases over time, the medical field will expand and even customize specific systems to individual patients to take home.

As virtual reality becomes more popular in the medical field, it is being used in numerous areas. One of the most significant epidemics we have in the United States is opioid dependency. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “more than 40% of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved a prescription opioid, with more than 46 people dying every day from overdoses involving prescriptions opioids,” (Prescription Opioid Data | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center 2015-2016). The most common overdoses involving prescription opioids are Methadone, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone. Imagine if there was some way to eliminate or at least cut down on the usage of opioids before, during and after procedures. After researching, I have become aware of virtual reality use for a wide variety of painful medical procedures. Following the procedures, patients are supplying feedback on their VR experience and have stated they would use VR again. The procedures patients went through while using virtual reality were unwrapping and bandaging burn victims, chemotherapy, and small medical operations. Since virtual reality is still very new, research seems to show that virtual reality is helping distract or change the neuroreceptors in patients which have been related to the Gate Control Theory. The Gate Control Theory “suggests that factors such as the level of attention paid to the pain, the emotion associated with the pain and past experience of the pain all play a role in how the pain will be interpreted.”(Virtual Reality and Pain Management, 2011) The experts seem to believe that given the attention of the patient is elsewhere when in the virtual world this yields a decrease in the pain receptors of the patient. While virtual reality is still very new to the medical field, research on whether it has actually been proven to work or not is definitely heading in the right direction of fixing the opioid epidemic.

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and anyone can be susceptible to having this disorder affect their lives. This disorder can occur when an individual experiences a traumatic event at some point during their lifetime. The effects of this disorder on a person’s life can manifest immediately after the traumatic event or years later after their traumatic experience. Most people relate PTSD to military veterans because of the number of suicides that occur each day, which is said to be twenty-two and growing, because of PTSD. Virtual reality is becoming increasingly popular with patients diagnosed with PTSD by incorporating VR into exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is when a patient sits down with a trained professional counselor who runs the patient through virtual controlled scenarios that are often associated with the traumatic event they experience; thus, they’re experience exposure to essentially desensitize them overtime. Most scenarios for military veterans suffering from PTSD resemble the Middle East where the patient can experience the sights and sounds without actually ever going back. The counselor can make the scene more or less intense depending on how the patient responds to each situation. This exposure therapy can also be used in anxiety and phobias. The continuation of the simulations can train a patient’s brain to be comfortable in whatever situation makes them uncomfortable. Virtual reality is also being used to help overcome the fear of heights, big crowds and even flying. The virtual reality inventors and investors are really looking forward to advancing in this part of the medical field in the imminent future.

At some point in our lives, we have created some kind of physical damage to our bodies. This could have happened in sports, a car accident or normal wear and tear which doesn’t heal the same as we age. If these injuries or mishaps get too extreme, we can go to a physical therapist. Physical therapy is a way to control or eliminate pain while restoring function and movement back to those injuries. While sports injuries are what most of us know physical therapy for, it can also be used to help people recover from strokes, becoming more efficient at prosthetic limb manipulation and even help prevent or manage heart and lung disease. Different techniques are used in every situation from exercise, ultrasound, joint mobilization, massages, heat/ice and many more. All of these techniques can be helpful but are also repetitive and boring. The virtual reality world has created ways to make the physical recovery much more enjoyable and most importantly more effective. Virtual reality physical therapy not only allows the patient to play fun games, it also takes the dull repetitive five to ten rep movements out of the picture. It also seems to be taking the self-doubt of the patient out of the picture as well. Self-doubt is becoming less in physical therapy patients participating in VR because it allows the patient to focus on the game and different objectives which in turn allows the patient to move in ways they previously would doubt themselves if they were not being distracted by VR. This use of VR in physical therapy is proving to affect the stubborn patients who are unmotivated by having more motivation. Additionally, virtual reality physical therapy has shown engagement to be two to three times longer in patients who participate than in patients who do not. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are all investing a great deal of money into virtual reality, thus, proving virtual reality is not just something that will come and go, this is the future.

Learning technical skills to succeed in the job force usually starts with the most inexperienced learning from the most experienced individuals on the job force. As the number of medical personnel increases which yields hire cost and ethical concerns, the opportunities to experience hands-on in-person training is becoming slim. While cost and ethical concerns have become an issue to allow more hands-on in-person training, virtual reality is combining those issues by becoming a training tool for both nurses who are undergoing training, and maintaining the education once one has become a professional. Compared to other programs, virtual reality simulations are more realistic because of the very detailed three-dimensional graphics of the anatomical structures they deliver. Medical professionals that are training using VR can interact in every step of their training through multiple decision-making scenarios during the procedure. Some of the programs that are available are: clinical decisions, disaster response, interdisciplinary collaboration and chronic disease management. As the medical professional makes changes in their procedure, the three-dimensional patient will react as if a live patient would. During the trainee’s procedures, a plethora of data is collected to not only help the trainee, but also save time and money so that only one or two senior doctors need to be onsite to analyze the results that the virtual reality procedure relays to them. Another part more surgeons will be adapting to in the future is virtually molding body parts which will allow for the replace and or rebuild of specific body part structures. There is a virtual reality program that is currently still in a prototype in which the user starts with a piece of clay and molds it to the exact dimensions they need to repair or replace the body part which then allows for the mold to be printed three-dimensionally. One brain surgeon is currently working to build a three-dimensional skull piece to help people who have been born lacking parts of their skull or have had to have pieces removed due to tumors. The more people dive into virtual reality, the more people will realize that VR is more than just a gaming tool. They will also realize that it is an educational tool that will advance the medical field much faster than ever predicted.

After researching the topic of VR, AR and MR, I can personally tell you that the virtual reality world is growing, and it is growing fast within major companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, whom are all investing millions of dollars to try to get ahead. I predict that VR will only get better than what I was able to experience at the Innovation Hub. With applications continuously getting better in each of the categories above, I am most excited to see how much more these systems can help PTSD victims, and the opioid epidemic we have in America as well as around the world.

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