6 VR uses in Healthcare that will blow your mind

Training surgeons, developing new life-saving techniques and more…

As everyone keeps telling us, “2016 is the year of VR”. There certainly has been a lot of hype around the gaming market for VR, with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now in the hands of consumers.

Mobile VR such as Samsung’s GearVR and Google Cardboard have also been bringing a more affordable virtual reality experience to the market.

But here at VR Intelligence we believe virtual reality is much more than a transformative experience for video games and the way we consume video.

Here are 7 examples of how VR is helping to revolutionise the way healthcare operates. From developing new life-saving techniques to training the doctors that could save your life in the future, this is one list you won’t want to miss.

1. Google Cardboard saves a baby

Baby Teegan Lexcen was born with only one lung and half her heart. Innovative doctors at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami mapped Teegan’s heart in virtual reality, using the 360-degree image to effectively plan a pioneering surgery technique to save her life.

Google Cardboard

What’s the story?

Cassidy and Chad Lexcen were told there was nothing that could be done, and baby Teegan was sent home with a hospice nurse. Death seemed not only inevitable, but imminent.

Over two months later, Teegan was still fighting, and her parents started searching for someone who could help. After a couple of false starts, they finally found Dr. Redmond Burke, who agreed to look at their case.

Dr. Burke’s colleague, Dr. Muniz, attempted to use a 3D printer to make a model of Teegan’s heart, which would help inform the strategy for the surgery. With the 3D printer broken, Dr. Muniz used an app called Sketchfab to create a virtual reality model of the heart which could be viewed using Google Cardboard.

Within virtual reality the doctors could not only look at the heart, but effectively move around and view the heart from every possible angle. Critically they could also position the heart in relation to Teegan’s rib cage and other organs. What is crucial here is that every moment wasted on the operating table increases risk exponentially – that’s on top of the massive risk associated with operating on a baby in the first place.

Using the virtual image, there were no surprises for Dr. Burke when he finally opened up Teegan’s chest to operate. Burke performed the new surgery which he himself had invented – rerouting Teegan’s one ventricle so that it could effectively perform the task of a complete heart long term.

Just four weeks after surgery, Teegan was taken off the ventilator. She is expected to make a full recovery.

2. The world’s first surgery streamed in virtual reality

Dr. Shafi Ahmed performed surgery, and the whole operation was broadcast live through virtual reality. Dr. Ahmed removed cancerous tissue from the bowel of the patient, which took just over three hours.

VR streamed surgery

What’s the story?

Training medical professionals is expensive, and there is limited time and space for trainees to witness surgery themselves.

So, far from simply serving those with a morbid curiosity, this represents a real step forward in training techniques – where doctors around the world can witness best practices almost first-hand.

If you’re interested in taking a look for yourself you can download the ‘VR in OR’ app to use on your smartphone.

3. Virtual reality helps ease phobias

Virtual reality is being used to expose users to their phobias in a controlled environment.

VR Phobia Treatment

What’s the story?

For some time now doctors and therapists the world over have advocated exposure therapy – forcing patients to physically confront that which they fear the most – in order to ease or completely cure phobias.

Whilst for some this conjures ideas of an ‘I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!’ style challenge to help cure fears of spiders and insects, that image isn’t too far from the truth.

With four to five percent of Americans suffering from a clinically significant phobia, the opportunity to provide a cure could be big business, not to mention the associated positive social impact. For many phobias, exposure therapy is impractical, but Virtual Reality is set to change that.

The Virtual Reality Medical Center has been offering VR treatments to help cure phobias for the past ten years, showing extremely promising results that will only be multiplied as VR continues to develop.

4. MindMaze use VR to help stroke victims

MindMaze, a Swiss start-up founded in 2012, are using virtual reality, brain imaging and video games to bring the benefits of rehab to sufferers of strokes and Parkinson’s disease.


What’s the story?

Often those who have suffered a stroke, or who are fighting Parkinson’s, struggle with things healthy people take for granted like balance or control.

By blending virtual reality and augmented reality, MindMaze have developed several digital treatments to aid recovery.

With MindMotionPro the user wears a vest with active markers (a lot like what actors where when performing motion capture for CGI films). Sensors then pick up those markers and relay them to a computer, where a digital avatar is created and streamed and displayed back to the user.

If the patient has an affected limb, MindMaze can use this VR/AR set-up to trick their mind into visualizing their movement, and then carry out simple actions like reaching and grasping. This process can literally teach the brain how to use the damaged limb again, and speed recovery.

5. PTSD treatment

Similar to exposure therapy for curing phobias, VR is being used to ease Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, primarily suffered by military veterans upon returning from war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.

VR PTSD Treatment

What’s the story?

Dr. Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California has been working within clinical virtual reality for the past 20 years, and has even won awards for his work in developing treatments for PTSD.

With HTC Vive and Oculus Rift finally on the market, the biggest barrier to the widespread adoption of the very VR therapies that Dr. Rizzo has developed – that of accessibility – has been all but solved. As Dr. Rizzo himself said, “It has not been the theory or research that has held back clinical VR, rather the availability, adoption and costs that have limited its widespread use.”

Clinicians can place patients within realistic and immersive scenes that can trigger anxieties or fear within the patient. The patient can then be guided through the scene so that they can cope with the situation within which they are placed.

6. Pain management

SnowWorld is a virtual reality pain control environment that is specifically designed to help burn patients reduce their pain.

VR Pain Management

What’s the story?

The University of Washington HITLab, in collaboration with Harborview Burn Center, have developed a virtual environment that distracts the patient from the pain of having wound dressings changed.

The original SnowWorld was developed and completed in 2003, with multiple iterations since then. Patients fly through an icy 3D canyon and throw snowballs at snowmen, penguins and woolly mammoths.

The results are somewhat staggering. A patient had two almost identical procedures, for one he was given a Nintendo console to play, for the second he used SnowWorld in VR. When asked how painful each procedure was, the second – performed whilst distracted by VR – showed less than half the level of pain.

- Thomas Wallis

Get in touch with the author of this article on twitter: @ClacTom

What do you think of using VR in Healthcare? Let us know in the comments below.