Early on, brand experts saw the potential for Virtual Reality (VR) to take user engagement to new heights. The immersive technology is so transporting that participants can’t help but be affected by the experience.

Now, study after study is proving virtual experiences can have positive, real world effects. VR is increasingly being seen as a groundbreaking therapeutic modality. It can alleviate pain, reduce anxiety, even aid in physical performance and memory recall. Positive results in the lab are encouraging innovative hospitals to put this emerging technology to the test.

VR is being used for medical education and training, providing real patient treatment, improving physical therapy, and creating a better hospital and outpatient experience. Research and Markets pegged the healthcare market for virtual and augmented reality at $769.2 million in 2017, and estimated it would reach nearly $4 billion by 2023.

Establishing the New Standard of Care

Another shift that VR is accelerating is the expansion of locations where treatment is rendered. The infrastructure of healthcare used to be based around the hospital. Today, outpatient care is increasingly common, and the options for home care are more diverse and extensive than ever.

“The market for virtual and augmented reality in healthcare hit $769.2 million in 2017. It’s estimated to reach nearly $4 billion by 2023.”

The rapid growth and wide availability of cutting-edge technology like VR has blurred the lines between inpatient, outpatient, and home care. VR technology is finding applications in and across all three categories. Virtual reality is ultimately a highly flexible and easily deployable human enhancement tool. It’s a vehicle for building healthier, happier, more efficient people, and it works simply everywhere.

Across industries, brands are seeking to build more authentic and engaging relationships with their customers. The empathic power of virtual reality is unmatched at creating meaningful connections quickly. For healthcare consumers, the effect is even more dramatic because the experience is curative.

Here are seven ways virtual reality is disrupting the healthcare sector right now:

1. REDUCING ANXIETY

VR’s ability to magically whisk people away from their current situation and environment into one that can be far more peaceful makes it ideal for stress relieving applications. From dentistry to oncology, VR is being employed to calm frayed nerves. Hanlon has partnered with several top Philadelphia healthcare providers on VR-based guided meditation programs that are designed to take some of the pain and anxiety out of procedures like chemotherapy and root canals or potentially distressing medical tests such as MRIs.

Hospitals are also trying to help patients reduce their anxiety with educational programming, like VR explanations of the treatment they are about to receive. Likewise, VR is being employed to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias with exposure therapy in a safe environment.

2. ALLEVIATING PAIN

With a crackdown on opioids in hospitals, they need every tool than can to treat pain without painkillers. VR distraction therapy is proving effective. It’s already being used to ease the pain of arduous cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

VR is also helping amputees with phantom pain syndrome, a condition that usually doesn’t respond to painkillers. They are using “virtual mirror therapy,” a soothing experience where the patient can see their lost limb as if it was still a part of them.

3. ENHANCING PHYSICAL THERAPY

Even for those not recovering from injuries, VR can help improve physical performance when exercising, but physical therapy patients also benefit from the correction of their therapeutic movements while engaged in game-like VR programs. Unlike offline activities, many systems are also recording motion and capable of providing real-time biofeedback.

VR is also helping them enhance their attention and motivation, which improves outcomes. VR PT is being tested at several medical centers around the country including Stanford Sports Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Sports Medicine Center.

4. IMPROVING HOSPITAL AND OUTPATIENT EXPERIENCES

Hospitals and outpatient facilities aren’t typically places you want to be. Particularly for patients treating chronic conditions or undergoing long term care, spending extended periods of time at a treatment center can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. VR offers a unique outlet for escaping those difficult circumstances through experiences like digital trips to a museum or virtual front row seats to a concert or sporting event.

Better educated patients also have higher satisfaction levels and feel more connected to their treatment. VR patient education helps them understand what they are facing, removes uncertainties, and dampens the threat response.

5. TRAINING SURGEONS AND PHYSICIANS

Surgery is a high stakes environment, so doctors jump at any opportunity to hone their skills outside of the operating room. VR surgical training has been rapidly adopted because it is the closest they can get to the real thing. Physicians are also learning that virtual MRI and CAT Scan exercises are making them better able to spot, zoom in, and visualize the information on diagnostic tests.

6. TREATING AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS AND ADHD

Autism and related conditions are associated with problems with interpersonal communication. The best treatment for autism spectrum patients is social interaction and VR, the ultimate empathic machine, is proving to be well suited to recreating those experiences. VR-based behavior modification programs are also being employed with ADHD patients to improve focus and attention.

7. TEACHING MEDICAL STUDENTS

Medical school hasn’t changed much in the past few decades. Despite the technological advances all around us, most medical learning still takes place by staring at a two-dimensional page or screen.

Now medical students have a chance to explore the human body in a totally new and enveloping way. In schools across the country, they are donning VR headsets to get a closer look at virtual specimens, and 3D stereoscopic animated content is making information more engaging and improving recall.

It’s Just the Beginning

Healthcare is clearly ahead of other industries in putting virtual reality technology to good use. The standard of care is everything in medicine. No healthcare provider can afford to be left behind, and VR has proven to be a powerful tool in the treatment, training and teaching of medicine. Although we are still in in the early adopter phase, all indications are that VR has a long and healthy future in healthcare.

VR will ease suffering, help us learn faster, and improve our performance. However, across industries, one issue facing greater adoption is a lack of content. But that only means there is a hunger for something that is isn’t being fed. It’s a touchpoint that’s being underexploited.

Like almost every other major touchpoint today, winning in VR is all about engagement. Can you meet and exceed your audience’s expectations, and do it consistently? The tools for building incredible virtual experiences are widely available. What’s missing is expertise in VR design. It’s a medium that requires deep familiarity with unique user experience challenges, such as optimizing the way a user moves through a virtual environment (or doesn’t), where to direct attention, and how to make a productive connection.