How Virtual Reality is Transforming Public Health and Medicine



Did you know that virtual, mixed, and augmented reality experiences can have therapeutic and educational benefits? Here are some noteworthy studies that show how X-Reality improves users’ lives.

VR can reduce and manage severe pain.

SnowWorld is a VR game designed to control pain experienced by people with severe burn injuries and the first immersive software of its kind. Designed by VR researcher Hunter Hoffman and Professor David Patterson of UW Medicine, SnowWorld simulates an icy, virtual world in which participants get hit with and throw snowballs at mammoths, snowmen, and penguins. Users experience reduced pain as a result.


These brain scans show the difference between pain perception in study participants exposed to pain stimuli who did not use VR (top row) and those who experienced SnowWorld (bottom row). Read more about the study in this issue of UW Medicine Magazine.

Many other VR experiences and games relieve pain and anxiety for patients undergoing treatment for routine medical procedures and cancer: read about why the technology works and the current trends and future directions of virtual reality pain management.

VR exposure-based therapy (VR-EBT) can mitigate symptoms for people with PTSD and other anxiety disorders.

This 2015 study reviews the efficacy of VR-EBT for treating PTSD and finds that while more diverse and controlled trials are necessary, as the majority of VR-EBT studies thus far have focused on war veterans, VR-EBT’s potential lies in the technology’s ability to hyper-realistically recreate traumatic situations. This is what makes VR-EBT so useful for treating anxiety disorders and phobias: users are exposed to triggers in a safe and controlled environment. Albert Rizzo, Director for Medical Virtual Reality at the University of Southern California-Institute for Creative Technologies, emphasizes the importance and efficacy of user supervision by ethical and well-trained clinicians.


Image taken from PBS article about healing using virtual reality.

Limbix, a one-year-old startup based in Silicon Valley, builds realistic virtual environments through which psychologists guide patients. The company uses real-world footage, including content provided by Google Street View, to create therapeutic experiences for people afraid of flying, driving, heights, and other phobias.

VR apps can teach women to make smart and safe sexual health decisions.

In 2015, Emory University Professor Rasheeta Chandler and research assistant Henry Ross began researching and developing a VR application designed to support black women in making safe decisions in their love and sex lives. Responding to the disproportionately high rates of HIV infections and unintended pregnancies that occur among black women in the United States as a result of insufficient sexual health resources and systemic neglect, Chandler intends to fill the knowledge gap by building an educational app. 


Chandler and Ross consider VR an ideal format for educating young women, explaining that a headset creates a safe and immersive experience in which users can do everything from practice using a condom to decline consenting to a sexual encounter. Read more about the project’s design and theoretical framework.

VR can be accessible to people with vision loss.

Virtual reality has enabled some people with vision loss to see more clearly than they typically do. Jamie Soar, a legally blind man, recently enjoyed a VR experience after discovering that the headset's proximity to his face and the Vive's dual-screen projection method caused his eyes to refocus.

Legally blind filmmaker, accessibility activist, and speaker James Rath reviews 360° video and VR content during the the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

These are just some of the many developing applications of virtual reality technologies in public health, medicine, and healthcare. We’re always interested in learning more about VR’s uses in these industries as well as the strategies that organizations are using to make such technology more accessible to disabled people. Tweet us @pixvana to share what you know with us.


Posted by Eden Amital