The Reality of “Virtual Reality” Technology

Imagine being a patient at a hospital located in the middle of a city, only to find yourself surrounded by calming ocean views. Try picturing yourself as a medical student studying for your next exam with a video game. “How is this possible?” you ask. The intersection of medicine and technology has created a new future for doctors, medical students, and patients while also multiplying potential treatments for patients with psychiatric symptoms, Parkinson’s Disease, phantom limb syndrome, and those in need of surgery.

Virtual reality is making a significant impact on the way that physicians are learning. Virtual reality surgical simulators can collect data on the speed and quality of surgical techniques to help medical students reflect on their progress. Students can adjust the difficulty level on the equipment while practicing various techniques including camera and instrument navigation, dexterity in suturing and clamping, and other tasks involved in surgery. Procedural simulators enable students to practice scenarios such as ectopic pregnancies that can help expose them to comprehensive situations rather than individual techniques. With the excelling development of technology, VR is growing in reliability as a practice environment for medical students (Hammoud, 2008). For instance, researchers from Johns Hopkins Medical Institution ran a study on 20 surgical residents who had to master their knowledge of endoscopy for the American Board of Surgery Certification. The residents performed simulation tasks on a virtual reality platform and the results showed that 100% of the residents passed the skills test with improved confidence (Gearhart, 2018).

Virtual reality technology holds as much promise for patient populations as it does healthcare professionals. . A group of patients with intractable chronic phantom limb pain enrolled in a study after various traditional methods of healing failed. After 12 sessions of virtual reality sessions in which patients were exposed to a number of intensities, durations, and qualities of practices with advanced gaming machines, about 50% decreased in pain rating and distribution (Ortiz-Catalan, 2016). Another study in Veneto, Italy involving Parkinson’s disease patients with impaired postural control showed vast improvements in their motor functions after they practiced in “engaging virtual reality scenarios.” Patients exercised with the TeleWii balance training program, which holds a promising future that saves on time and travel costs for patients undergoing physical therapy (Gandolfi, 2017). 

VR Technology image
Connolly, P. (2015, November 8). VR Therapy [Digital image]. Retrieved from
Besides use for physical care, virtual reality may be employed to diagnose and treat psychiatric patients, such as those with acrophobia or OCD. VR is typically used as exposure therapy, and acrophobic patients can reduce their fear and anxiety by being placed in scenarios such as skiing, cliff-diving, and riding the elevator. A study performed in South Korea showed that AQ-anxiety scores lowered after exposure to VR training (Hong, 2017).

Ultimately, virtual reality holds countless opportunities for the future of medicine. Because it is easily accessible and can be used independently at home, it is promising to patients requiring  constant hospital treatment and medical students who desire hands-on practice without risking actual patient lives or being constricted by limited body parts for training. Perhaps in a few years, virtual reality will become our common reality.

Edited by Anna Farrell.


Gearhart, S., Marohn, M., Ngamruengphong, S., Adrales, G., Owodunni, O., Duncan, K., Lipsett, P. (2018). Development of a train-to-proficiency curriculum for the technical skills component of the fundamentals of endoscopic surgery exam. Surgical Endoscopy. doi:10.1007/s00464-017-6018-7

Hammoud, M. M., Nuthalapaty, F. S., Goepfert, A. R., Casey, P. M., Emmons, S., Espey, E. L. Peskin, E. G. (2008). To the point: medical education review of the role of simulators in surgical training. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology,199(4), 338-343. doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2008.05.002

Hong, Y., Kim, H. E., Jung, Y. H., Kyeong, S., & Kim, J. (2017). Usefulness of the Mobile Virtual Reality Self-Training for Overcoming a Fear of Heights. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking,20(12), 753-761. doi:10.1089/cyber.2017.0085

Marialuisa Gandolfi, Christian Geroin, Eleonora Dimitrova, et al. (2017). Virtual Reality Telerehabilitation for Postural Instability in Parkinson’s Disease: A Multicenter, Single-Blind, Randomized, Controlled Trial. BioMed Research International, vol. 2017. doi:10.1155/2017/7962826

Ortiz-Catalan, M., Guðmundsdóttir, R. A., Kristoffersen, M. B., Zepeda-Echavarria, A., Caine-Winterberger, K., Kulbacka-Ortiz, K., . . . Hermansson, L. (2016). Phantom motor execution facilitated by machine learning and augmented reality as treatment for phantom limb pain: a single group, clinical trial in patients with chronic intractable phantom limb pain. The Lancet,388(10062), 2885-2894. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(16)31598-7

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