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The 7 Most Impactful Uses of VR in Hospitals
Training, visualization, therapy — virtual reality’s healthcare applications benefit medical pros and patients
Healthcare | Training/Simulation | Article
5 min read
Since the earliest iterations of virtual reality hardware were conceived more than half a century ago  , VR pioneers have envisioned the technology being used to help others. In recent years, this vision has become a reality; high-tech VR headsets are now being used in fields like the military, architecture, entertainment, and education, to name a few. Perhaps its most impactful use, however, is in healthcare, where virtual reality is reshaping processes for both medical professionals and patients. Here’s a look back on how VR in hospitals evolved over the last few decades, as well as ways in which the technology is being used today.
A Brief History of VR in Hospitals
Though the earliest VR headsets were created in the 1960s, the term “virtual reality” wasn’t coined until almost 20 years later  . In the mid-1980s, VR as we know it began to take form  : VPL Research’s so-called “EyePhone” consisted of goggles similar to modern VR headsets and accompanying gloves that could be considered predecessors to the controllers VR headsets use today.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that medical professionals began to ask, “How can VR be used in healthcare?” Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, then Executive Director of Emory Healthcare Veterans Program  , began using VR to treat psychological disorders like phobias in 1993. VR found additional uses in a hospital setting later that decade, including the treatment of PTSD.
The new millennium brought about rapid advances in technology. Next-generation headsets like the VIVE XR Elite gave the medical community new ways to improve their skill sets, including more immersive training modules. Between 2012 and 2017, the value of the VR healthcare market in the United States nearly doubled  .
For a more comprehensive look at the current state of virtual reality in healthcare and what to expect next, watch our webinar: How VR is Reshaping Healthcare  .
AR and VR in healthcare
Augmented reality and virtual reality often go hand-in-hand, and the hospital setting is no exception. By integrating digital information with the physical world in real-time, AR solutions are being used in nurse training, medical imaging, the study of anatomy, and even pediatric MRI evaluation  . AR applications can be used with smartphones or tablets as opposed to PCs or laptops, they can often be more accessible than VR. However, growing concerns about privacy  have slowed AR’s widespread adoption. For now, VR is the more viable of the two technologies in a medical setting.
Most Impactful Uses of VR in Hospitals
With that said, how can VR be used in healthcare? As doctors, scientists, and engineers continue to find innovative new ways to implement technology into the healthcare field, these are the most impactful ways VR is being used in hospitals in 2023.
Training and education
Medical education is exhaustive and comprehensive, but because some scenarios can’t be recreated in practical training, there’s still room for skill deficits. VR is one way hospitals are addressing the skill gap, thanks to portable, on-demand training that can be accessed at any time. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study  , conducted with the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, found that using a VR platform improved students’ overall surgical performance by 230% when compared to traditional training.
One of the earliest uses of VR in hospitals remains among the most effective. Traditionally, exposure therapy had a dropout rate as high as 50%  due to the uncomfortable situations patients were forced to put themselves in. By substituting actual (or perceived) dangers and difficult-to-recreate scenarios with simulated environments, VR therapy can help those with phobias face their fears in a more controlled manner. In fact, the first controlled study  examining the efficacy of “computer-generated (virtual reality) graded exposure” in patients with acrophobia saw those in the treatment group overcoming their fears in just eight weeks.
A 1998 study  detailed the use of virtual reality for 3D imaging, calling it “an accepted scientific discipline for medicine” and envisioning future uses in surgical planning, rehabilitative medicine, and psychiatry. Current and Future Applications of Virtual Reality for Medicine showed that virtual reality could benefit doctors and other medical professionals, as well as patients. Over 20 years later, this is still one of the top functions of VR in hospitals; modern technology takes the concept even further thanks to its ability to remove real-world distractions and put users in highly detailed 3D environments that convey critical patient health information.
In some ways, PTSD treatment resembles exposure therapy — it often involves patients being subjected to painful memories. Using cognitive intervention therapy, VR PTSD treatment takes the basic practice of exposure therapy even further. According to Daniel Freeman  , a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University and a leading proponent of VR therapy, “If you overcome something in VR, you overcome it in real life.” A 2022 study  backs up Freeman’s statement, showing a success rate between 66% and 90% when virtual reality is used to treat PTSD in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy.
In 2021, the FDA approved RelieVRx  (formerly EaseVRx), a self-directed, at-home VR headset for chronic lower back pain. Similar treatments used in hospitals today help patients develop skills to manage their pain with little or no pharmacological intervention, such as bodily awareness, ways to self-distract, and relaxation methods.
Though necessary for patients to retain bodily autonomy after traumatic accidents or severe health issues, physical therapy can be a grueling process. Virtual reality treatments gamify aspects of the physical therapy process, making it more enjoyable for patients who are often facing weeks, if not months, of treatment. In addition to being more fun, “VR has this uncanny ability to kind of nudge the human brain in ways that other audiovisual media cannot,” according to Dr. Brennan M. Spiegel  , an expert who is leading the way for virtual reality in healthcare.
What if you could treat vision issues by playing video games? Companies like Vivid Vision  have made that hypothetical a reality, offering VR vision training for convergence insufficiency, lack of stereo depth perception, and amblyopia. The treatment, which typically requires medical supervision, provides interactive experiences designed to work where other versions of binocular vision training have failed. As eye-tracking technology  advances, expect VR to have even more applications in ocular medicine.
Establish a New Standard of Care With HTC VIVE
When it comes time to equip your hospital with virtual technology infrastructure, HTC VIVE’s solutions can help. Our best-in-class hardware provides highly detailed visuals, which is ideal for medical imaging and training. Meanwhile, next-generation motion and eye-tracking capabilities allow for a wider range of mobility, creating immersive scenarios in a safe, computer-generated environment. Want to know more about HTC VIVE’s impact on VR in hospitals?
 The Franklin Institute, https://www.fi.edu/en/virtual-reality/history-of-virtual-reality
 Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2019/10/research-how-virtual-reality-can-help-train-surgeons