Is Virtual Reality making Medicine more Magic?

3 min read

Virtual reality has been around as concept for quite some time. One of the first depictions of it was in the 1935 short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” by Stanley G.Weinbaum, that tells a tale of a man who invented a pair of goggles which enabled “a movie that gives one sight and sound […] taste, smell, and touch.” However, the idea of virtual reality ‘goggles’ didn’t truly come into fruition until 2011, when a VR headset prototype known now as Oculus Rift was created by Palmer Luckey in his home garage. After joining forces with programmer John Carmack, who worked on games like Doom and Quake, and raising $2.4 million on crowd funding site Kickstarter the device became available on the market as the first high resolution, immersive virtual reality headset. By 2016 there were at least 230 companies developing VR related products.

There are mixed opinions about the current success of the gaming experience and whether it will catch on. There are currently 171 million VR users, which is roughly 2.2% of the human population with projections suggesting that up to 1 billion people will regularly access the device by 2020. Though the current VR headsets were primarily set up for gaming a more interesting VR development is for its uses beyond gaming. From education, military, shopping and space, VR has shown as a useful tool. Possibly one of the most beneficial uses for VR is in medicine. The main 3 areas VR has shown promise and potential development in medicine is: training, physiotherapy and mental health.

Medical Training

Medical training is done through many different mediums, but when it comes to learning the technical skill needed in surgery, there’s no other way than for junior doctors to get straight into surgery with the supervision of a senior surgeon. As you can imagine it’s quite nerve-racking to go straight in, scalpel first, without any other real technical practice. Not only that, this opportunity for junior doctors to train has become increasingly limited due to high costs, ethical concerns and reduction in allowable working hours due to the ‘European Working Time Directive’ put in place across Europe. VR provides a realistic, immersive experience that allows trainees to interact with all the anatomical structures. Junior doctors can gain confidence before the real thing as well as the ability to practice their skills anywhere at any time, and importantly, without any risk. An immersive VR also allows experienced surgeons to plan out and visualize complex surgeries.


Physiotherapy helps to restore movement and function when someone has been affected by injury, illness or disability, usually by repeating different exercises to improve mobility and function. Virtual reality can assist in physiotherapy by making exercise more enjoyable and engaging for patients, provide goal orientated tasks which encourage patients to continue, as well as the immersive nature acting as a distraction from any pain the patient may be feeling. A Canadian study of stroke sufferers found that Virtual Reality showed greater improvement, and in quicker time, in patients reaching ability, compared to conventional treatments. They also reported greater satisfaction in their physiotherapy with the VR treatment.

Mental Health

Difficulties interacting in the world are at the core of mental health issues and to improve mental health, patients need to learn to react and behave differently in certain situations. VR allows patients to confront situations they fear in a safe environment; this practice is known as exposure therapy. Once they enter the simulation they can then be coached and guided on the appropriate response to their ‘virtual’ environment. An example of this is using VR to help evaluate and manage patients with eating disorders. The technology can be used in therapeutic approaches by exposing patients to high-calorie foods or changes in body shape.

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