Augmented and Virtual Reality in Health and Medicine

The world of health care and medicine is vastly different than it was even just a few short years ago. Along with telemedicine, the application of big data to predict health conditions, coupled with the growth in smart health devices, has led to one of the biggest growth sectors for the medical and health fields being augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR).

Today, doctors, clinicians, and scientists are finding new ways to leverage AR and VR to change the way we train medical staff, diagnose diseases, and treat patients. In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways the medical industry is leveraging AR and VR to positively impact patient outcomes.

But first, a brief note on the difference between the two. VR is a computer-generated 3D environment in which users can immerse themselves — often with the use of VR goggles or a headset — to explore and interact with what is around them. On the other hand, AR takes the user’s existing environment and enhances it with additional layers of information.

Using virtual reality to train surgeons

As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” But for surgeons, hands-on experience can be tough to come by. For years, medical students have primarily learned through the observation of surgeries as well as performing procedures on cadavers. But the opportunities for both of these exercises can be limited. It is quite possible that a surgeon may have very little (or even no) hands-on experience of a specific procedure before attempting it on a real patient.

VR is changing this: Today, medical students are able to perform hundreds of procedures in virtual environments before being faced with tackling the real thing. Not only can doctors get meaningful experience with the surgery itself, they can also look around the virtual operating room, familiarizing themselves with the environment and controls they may need to use. Advanced VR systems for surgery even give tactile feedback that mimics the real thing, such as a tool vibrating when it’s used.

Virtual reality and the detection of Alzheimer’s disease

Almost everyone knows a family or friend who has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. While today there are treatments for Alzheimer’s that can help slow the progression of the disease, early detection remains a key for success in treatment. For years, cognitive testing has been the best way to diagnose Alzheimer’s, but one of the biggest flaws in this testing was the inability to try to detect issues with impaired navigation.

Virtual reality changes that: Today, scientists from the University of Cambridge are using VR to build virtual environments that serve as navigational tests. With this use of VR, doctors can test if the patient has the ability to properly navigate, a task that those with early Alzheimer’s would have difficulty completing.

AR and VR help patients recover from brain injuries

For individuals who have experienced a traumatic brain injury, recovery can be a slow and daunting process. One of the growing applications of both augmented and virtual reality is in the recovery and assistance of individuals who have unfortunately had a severe brain injury. Following an injury to the brain, coping with the tasks of everyday life can be very cumbersome. But over time, these tasks — things like making a shopping list or remembering to turn off the oven — become easier.

Using virtual reality, users can “practice” everyday habits until they are ingrained into their recovering brain. Doing so in a virtual environment helps increase repetition, which, in turn, can help patients recover faster. Augmented reality is also becoming a useful tool for these patients in order to give them additional information, reminders, or cues when they are navigating their everyday lives. These additional bits of information provided by AR can help make the transition back to full independence easier and faster.

Virtual reality for the treatment of phobias

Virtual reality has also shown promise for helping with issues of mental health. For example, a study from Lancet Psychiatry has shown that virtual reality can be an effective tool for helping patients cope with phobias. One of the examples of how virtual reality is used in this way was for the treatment of extreme fear of heights. Patients were able to use VR experiences to be placed into situations involving heights — like climbing a tree — and over time, there was a noticeable decrease in the prevalence of their specific fear.


AR and VR continue to present new opportunities for organizations to leverage virtual experiences to change the way they do business — and medicine and health care are at the forefront of this shift. In the coming months and years, you can expect to see AR and VR take an even larger role in the health and well-being of patients worldwide.


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