Virtual Reality

VR in Medicine: Can Your Oculus Cure Cancer?

A summary of the application of virtual reality to medicine.

Our association with virtual reality (VR) is typically rooted in immersive gaming. This is a technology in which a user is plunged into a virtual gaming world. In this world, the user can interact with other users, complete missions, or participate in challenges. As you might have guessed, this opens the door to creating virtual environments and ‘missions’ similar to those faced in reality. These include applications to engineering, military, construction, and healthcare.

Child using a VR headset
Photographer: Jessica Lewis | Source: Unsplash

VR is one of the fastest growing industries in the world at present and is expected to be worth around $184.66 billion by 2026. This technology is comprised of the following three elements:

1. Field of View and Frame Rate

The aim of these VR headsets is to mimic real life as much as possible. In order for them to do this the field of view of the headset, or in plain terms, the degree of vision that can be seen by the user must be as close as possible to natural human vision. At present, the current technology is capable of producing 180 degrees of vision, while human vision is approximately 220 degrees.

Frame rate represents the number of frames of images that are shown to the user of the headset per second. Currently, the technology supports 60 frames per second (fps) but is being improved to run at 120 fps. For comparison, human vision is estimated to be able to process up to 1000 fps – although the brain does not receive this amount of detail.

2. Spatial Audio and Sound Effects in VR

As you might have guessed, the realistic field of vision is coupled with a surround sound system, or spatial audio, that is used to simulate the new environment. This 360-degree audio is used to fully immerse the user in an alternative space and is used to provide 3D sound interactions that nudge the user around the environment. Consider hearing sounds behind you or to the left while walking through a simulation of a game park, for example.

Headphones on a table
Photographer: Fausto Sandoval | Source: Unsplash

3. Position and Head Tracking

In order for virtual reality to enable the user to move around in a virtual environment, it uses head and position tracking. This operates by tracking your position in the room and translating that position to a location in the virtual environment.

Due to its fully immersive experience and location/movement tracking, VR has been adopted by a variety of industries, not only gaming. These industries include engineering, mining, sport, military, and healthcare/medicine. Applying VR to these use cases allows for immersive simulation and training. This allows potential soldiers or doctors to safely experience functioning in the real world without the associated risk.

Applications of VR in Medicine

VR is set to become somewhat mainstream in medical care. This is because advances in technology mean that the hardware is cheaper, faster, and more reliable.

“The current technology and hardware changes so fast and improves dramatically in such a short time that what we are using today will look quaint and antiquated in just a few years” – David Axelrod, MD.

The applications of VR to medicine include applications to patients as well as doctors. These include immersion for pain management or anxiety treatment for patient treatment as well as medical training and surgery planning for doctors. These will be discussed below.

VR for Pain Management

The application of VR to pain management is based on the principle of technological ‘distraction therapy’. During this treatment, VR is used to distract a patient's attention from the activity causing the pain and anxiety, such as an injection or the installation of an IV.

A study also found that VR treatment can also help people who live with ongoing pain, such as lower back pain or fibromyalgia. In this study, it was found that VR reduced discomfort by more than 30%. Furthermore, it was found that these patients were less likely to have pain that interfered with their sleep or mood.

VR for Medical Procedure Anxiety

Medical procedure anxiety refers to the negative feelings associated with undergoing a medical operation. This can include chemotherapy, dialysis, or surgery. In order to assist patients with the discomfort of their procedures, some medical centres employ the help of VR.

VR can be used to transport cancer patients receiving chemotherapy to another world, like a peaceful beach or a winter forest. Alternatively, it can also be used to explain complex procedures to patients. Patients can use VR to interact with medical images while the doctor explains the procedure.

“Kids think of it (VR) like a video game. They use a joystick to zoom in through corridors in their brain, look at their tumor, and view things upside down,” – Gerald Grant, MD

According to Grant, engaging the children in the images allows them to be brought into the process and removes some of their fear.

VR for Medical Training

On the doctor side of the spectrum, VR can be used to assist with training in two different ways. VR can be used to allow prospective doctors to be immersed in their study material. Medical students can leverage VR to actually experience the content that they need to learn about and understand. For example, students can explore the heart’s chambers or the lobes of the brain and visualize and interact with the blood flow or synapses in these organs.

VR is also used to train prospective surgeons. Surgeons can perform virtual surgeries in order to learn new procedures, measure their level of competence for a specific procedure, as well as do refresher courses. The utilization of this technology has the capacity to increase the training space and reduce the need for expensive animal training models. Furthermore, surgical training is a 5 – 7 year apprenticeship requiring close supervision from a trained surgeon. The utilization of VR can reduce the reliance on trained surgeons as well as grade prospective surgeons in a quantitative, reportable manner.

Doctors performing surgery
Photographer: Piron Guillaume | Source: Unsplash

VR for Surgical Planning

The application of VR to surgical planning allows surgeons to collaborate in a virtual environment created out of scans of their patients’ organs. For example, Dr Grant’s neurosurgical team at Stanford uses VR to plan brain surgeries.

“At the end of day this is all about improving safety,” he says. “We discuss ways to approach difficult cases, such as skull-based tumors. This kind of collaboration allows us to plan well in advance how to safely navigate through these small corridors in the brain to get to the tumor.” – Gerald Grant, MD

This improved planning has the benefit of reducing operating time for patients and doctors. Furthermore, it ensures that doctors can safely explore new ways of performing procedures.


The application of technology, in this case, VR, has the capacity to significantly improve the lives of professionals and customers. VR not only allows for immersion for leisure but allows patients to overcome pain and anxiety and assists doctors in training and planning.

It is incredibly exciting to see where VR is going and if the application of artificial intelligence (AI) can improve the treatment and training capacity of this technology.

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