November 01, 2020

Virtual reality

Expanding the possibilities for health care

The idea of virtual reality (VR) has long appeared in fictional settings such as the holodeck on the starship Enterprise. But you may have also seen the term in headlines, as the video game, sports and tourism industries use the technology.

The medical field also has started using and exploring the potential of virtual reality to educate and train medical professionals, guide surgical procedures, and treat conditions such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

VR allows a user to step into a totally different, computer-generated experience that feels authentic. A computer creates controlled simulations that are seen and heard by users and respond to their actions.

VR is often delivered through the use of VR goggles, or a headset with screens wrapping around the eyes so that you are immersed in the different "world" in front of you.

More-sophisticated VR headsets may enhance the experience by including headphones, hand-held controllers to track your hand movements, or even a vest or a glove to deliver vibrations for tactile feedback.

VR technology is ever improving. For example, Mayo Clinic patented a technology that can stimulate the vestibular system — the structures in the inner ear that are important for balance. This can give VR users a sense of motion, which may help to alleviate motion sickness. As a whole, VR has the potential to directly benefit both medical professionals and people seeking care.


One potential use of VR is in the treatment of mental health disorders, including phobias. A very common treatment for specific phobias is a form of psychotherapy called...