The applications of virtual reality technology go far beyond gaming and recreational use. In fact, virtual reality is finding a new niche in healthcare and medicine. The ability to simulate emergency situations, visualize a surgery before performing it, or simulate psychological situations is providing a new level of understanding of medicine.
For example, virtual reality is being used to help soldiers returning from war overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD “can occur after someone has been exposed to a significant stressor and often includes symptoms such as avoidance, hyper-vigilance, anger issues and mood swings” (1). Virtual reality can help soldiers deal with PTSD by exposing them to triggers in a controlled environment. Skip Rizzo, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies, created several virtual “worlds” that mimic battlefield scenarios and has been successfully using them to help soldiers returning from war deal with PTSD. Before virtual reality, psychologists would use “exposure therapy,” where patients would imagine scenarios that triggered their PTSD and narrate them to the psychologist, to help soldiers face their triggers. Dr. Rizzo notes that the advantage of using virtual reality is that you can achieve the same result without having to rely on the patient’s imagination (1). Chris Merkle, a U.S Marine and patient of Dr. Rizzo, said that using virtual reality helped put his healing process in the right direction. “I’m still a work in progress obviously, but I’m so far forward – leaps and bounds beyond where I would have been without virtual reality” (1).
Virtual reality is also being used in two different ways to help treat cancer patients. First, cancer patients, especially those who have terminal diagnoses and have to spend many months in the hospital, often experience depression. Virtual reality can be used to help patients “escape” from the hospital. The Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Southern California has partnered with Springbok, a non-profit organization that provides entertainment and technology programs for the patient population, to create escapist entertainment for young cancer patients. Dr. James Hu, a clinical professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine who is working on this partnership, says that providing this escapist entertainment for young cancer patients could have clinical benefits as well (2). Studies show that virtual reality decreases the negative psychological effects of cancer, which gives patients a better a prognosis for recovery (2).
Second, virtual reality is helping the oncologists too. Tumors are particularly difficult to visualize and virtual reality can give oncologists the opportunity to “see” the tumor before they start operating on it. Alex Sigaras, a research associate at Weill Cornell Medicine, says, “I can zoom in [on the] protein structure. By moving my hands around, I can rotate [the] model” (3). Virtual reality also has genetic applications. Olivier Elemento, another researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine and the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine, said, “virtual reality can help doctors better understand how a mutation or the protein it makes transforms a cell into cancer which, in return, will help them find a drug to better target it” (3).
Furthermore, virtual reality is being used in plastic surgery. Plastic surgeons can use virtual reality to help their patients visualize what they will look like after the surgery. bodySCULPT, a Manhattan-based plastic surgery practice, is the first in the United States to use the Oculus Rift 3D for consultations for breast augmentations, liposuction, and Brazilian buttocks lifts (4). Now practices all over the country from Careaga Plastic Surgery in Miami to Genesis Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery in Oklahoma City are utilizing virtual technology to bridge the gap between the plastic surgeon’s vision and the patient’s expectations. Dr. Spero Theodorou, a renowned plastic surgeon from bodySCULPT, said, “The relationship between the plastic surgeon and the patient is now enhanced to the point of bringing virtual as close to reality as technically possible" (4).
These are just a few of the ways that virtual reality is changing the way we approach medicine. It’s also being used to train surgical residents and rehabilitate patients with brain damage, for cognitive training in children with autism, and even for meditation. This is also just the beginning of the medical applications of virtual reality. With more innovations in both virtual reality and medicine, virtually reality could potentially help paralyzed patients walk again or help find cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases.
(1) Quart, Justine. “Treating PTSD With Virtual Reality Therapy: A Way to Heal Trauma.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 16 July 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/technology/treating-ptsd-virtual-reality-therapy-heal-trauma/story?id=38742665.
(2) Dacuma, Mary. “Virtual Reality Program Enhances Treatment for Young Cancer Patients | Keck Medicine of USC.” Virtual Reality Program Enhances Treatment for Young Cancer Patients | Keck Medicine of USC, 3 Oct. 2016, http://snip.ly/79hbg?utm_content=bufferce330&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#http://www.keckmedicine.org/virtual-reality-program-enhances-treatment-for-young-cancer-patients/.
(3) “Doctors Using Virtual Reality to Treat Cancer Patients.” Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center, Weill Cornell Medicine, 13 July 2016, https://meyercancer.weill.cornell.edu/news/2016-07-13/doctors-using-virtual-reality-treat-cancer-patients.
(4) “BodySCULPT Brings Oculus Rift 3D Imaging and Virtual Reality to Breast Surgery and Body Sculpting.” 24-7 Press Release Newswire, 8 Dec. 2015, http://www.24-7pressrelease.com/press-release/bodysculpt-brings-oculus-rift-3d-imaging-and-virtual-reality-to-breast-surgery-and-body-sculpting-416529.php.
Image: © LagartoFilm | Dreamstime.com - Virtual reality smart-phone headset concept
Currently, Olivia is a senior at USC majoring in Biology and minoring in Spanish. She is the President of USC Health Sciences Education Program, a student organization that seeks to inspire young students to pursue careers in STEM and to foster excitement about the sciences among K-12 students. For the past two years, Olivia has been conducting clinical research on sports injuries in conjunction with the Human Performance Lab at USC's physical therapy school, which is where her interest and experience in biomedical innovation comes from. In her free time, she loves reading about new medical technologies, volunteering at schools around USC, and cheering on the Oklahoma City Thunder (her hometown team). After graduation, Olivia plans on going to medical school and eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon.