Virtual Reality is a versatile medium. Previous articles have shown how VR can be used for more than just gaming, but you may still be left with the impression that VR is a fun toy, something to play with but isn’t of any practical value. This article will dispel that idea by showing that not only can VR have use outside of pure entertainment, but that it can in fact be very beneficial. While there are several ways in which this can be demonstrated, the focus here is on VR in medicine.

Virtual Reality is young and so is its presence in medicine. VR could become a very important part of all aspects of medicine in the future but perhaps the place that is currently most affected is medical training. Virtual reality is providing opportunities to train in ways that might not have been possible before. For example, when used for CPR training participants felt more connected to the virtual victim than when they just watched on TV and as a result they felt better prepared for the real thing. VR will also help doctors to train for potentially dangerous procedures that previously would have had to be practiced on live patients while procedure is being performed. An example of such training would be for intubation. This is something that can’t be practiced on a cadaver because the patient has to be sitting up but VR allows doctors in training to practice without having to do it on live patients and risking tracheal perforation.

At the present time VR is mostly used for training but it will be used for diagnostics as well in the not too distant future. One area that will be greatly impacted is telemedicine. Telemedicine allows doctors and nurses to provide healthcare from a distance using telecommunication technology. The practice has existed for quite some time, having been practiced with phones and radios in the past and more recently with video calling. But advances in virtual reality have allowed doctors to be virtually present in a much more real way and work is being done to let doctors touch and feel patients while on opposite sides of the planet. Already there are things that doctors can look for in VR without having to be in the same space as the patient. VR will also allow doctors to work on patients with highly contagious diseases without being put in danger themselves.

Surprisingly, virtual reality has been shown to be as good or better than drugs for pain management. In 2008 Lt. Sam Brown was deployed to Afghanistan where on the last day of his mission his Humvee ran over an IED and he was set on fire winding up with 3rd degree burns over 30% of his body. During recovery he endured more than twenty-four painful surgeries, but the worst part was wound care and physiotherapy. He was concerned that he might become addicted to pain killers so his doctor suggested he try a virtual reality game called Snow World.
Snow World is a game that involves travelling through a frozen environment tossing snowballs at penguins, snowmen, wooly mammoths and other surprises all while listening to the music of Paul Simon. The idea is that patients have their senses overloaded with the game and music so they don’t have enough attention to focus on the pain while they are being treated. It might sound like ridiculous pseudoscience, but it actually works. Not only do patients report much less pain while in the game, but brain scans indicate much less pain activity in the brain while in the game. In fact it seems to work as well or better than pain medicine.

But VR isn’t only useful when dealing with physical pain, it is actually being used to deal with mental pain as well. Psychologists are experimenting with VR to treat patients with anxiety, phobias and PTSD. Fernando Tarnogol, a psychologist from Argentina, designed a program called Phobos which combines virtual reality and exposure therapy. It is used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders by exposing the patient to different types of stimulus in order for them to learn to manage their anxiety.

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center uses Gear VR to transport patients to other places, even other worlds. They also have videos about art and creatures under the sea. The idea is to “find ways to use technology to improve the value of care at Cedars-Sinai and beyond.” This isn’t just about making the hospital stay more pleasant, it is also about making it more affordable by reducing the resources that are used or shortening the length of stay for patients.

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