Virtual Reality: Promising but Worth It?

The incorporation of new medical technology into our healthcare system has lagged behind the pace of innovation. However, as medical procedures and patient care become more complex, new education tools and cutting-edge technology became more important than ever. Recent evaluations suggest that “approximately 20% of graduates do not meet competency in performing core surgical procedures” and work-hour restrictions and nonclinical work further limit the time students have to dedicate to surgical training with experienced mentors. [1] Medical and nursing schools are thus adopting virtual reality-based training systems to transform the way they are educating their students, leading a revolution in medical technology. [1]

Virtual Reality platforms allow surgeons to engage in immersive hands-on operative environments that stimulate real-world medical scenarios. This allows novice surgeons to visualize and practice their operations, view the outcome, and identify key areas that need improvement all within one setting. [2] VR-based tools incorporate procedure-specific checklists that allow surgeons to run through their surgery step by step, helping them formalize their approach to ensure a consistent level of quality before entering the operating room. Because of such measurements, “VR-trained participants completed the procedure an average of 20% faster than the traditionally trained group and also completed 38% more steps correctly in the procedure-specific checklists.” [3] When incorporated with machine learning, VR-based platforms are also able to sort through data gathered from a number of trainees in order to provide detailed feedback that can personalize training for novice surgeons. [1]

VR-based systems have particularly made the largest impact in skills learning for medical students. By running through simulations in hospital rooms with people “programmed to mimic conditions like strokes and seizures and that can bleed, blink, and give birth,” medical students are challenged to think on their feet and make quick judgments on which treatment method works the best. [4] Marlene Alfaro, a student at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine, says “virtual reality lets me see real quick how everything goes together” as she practices on a beating heart though VR goggles. [4] Real life simulations not only allow students to practice their physical skills in the operating room but also improve communication skills with patients as the scenarios they experience help them establish good bedside manner that treats patients with compassion and empathy. [4]

However, there are many challenges to incorporating virtual reality technology into the healthcare system. Increased costs must be weighed against the “potential for improved surgical competence and reduced medical error, with reduced morbidity and mortality.” [2] To explain, it costs $229.79 per participant for a live drill compared to $327.78 per participant using virtual reality as a training tool. Unsurprisingly, a large initial investment in virtual technology would be inevitable for healthcare systems. However, not only do the up-front costs of the technology make it difficult to adopt VR, but its uncertainty and difficulty in quantifying its financial value also makes it a risky business decision. [5] Moreover, although many surgeons welcome new high-tech methods, others are still wary of the possible dangers in including “virtual reality and robots that are still viewed as gimmicks.” [2]

This brings up the question of whether we should be spending our time and resources on other medical technologies. Forbes notes that although virtual reality is a big healthcare trend in 2022, artificial intelligence and machine learning as well as personalized medicine and genomics are promising fields as well. Artificial intelligence can be used to analyze vast amounts of medical data, providing physicians with suggested diagnosis and treatment plans based on medical records and common symptoms. Moreover, personalized medicine will go beyond the traditional "one-size-fits-all" treatment, allowing patients to receive medication curated to their individual needs. For instance, Empha healthcare center in Sweden used “modeling software to create a system that predicts the exact dosage of painkillers for individual patients, which is life changing for patients who are suffering from chronic pain.” [6]

As we continue to implement new medical technology into our healthcare system, it is important to ask ourselves which types of health technologies will provide the most cost-effective, patient-centered, quality care. It is also crucial to think about how we can measure the impact and success of such differing technologies with the mindset of improving all aspects of healthcare. As the adoption of new medical technologies is complex and multifaceted, we must address these questions throughout the coming years as we witness a new era in medicine that has the potential to transform the healthcare system as a whole. [7]


1. Rogers, M. P., DeSantis, A. J., Janjua, H., Barry, T. M., & Kuo, P. C. (2021). The future

surgical training paradigm: Virtual reality and machine learning in surgical education. Surgery, 169(5), 1250–1252.

2. McCloy, R., & Stone, R. (2001). Virtual reality in surgery. Science, medicine, and the

future, 323, 912-915.

3. Blumstein, G. (2019). Research: How Virtual Reality Can Help Train Surgeons. Harvard

Business Review. Published October 16, 2019. Accessed March 10, 2022.

4. Pappano, L. (2018). Training the Next Generation of Doctors and Nurses. The New York


givers.html. Published October 31, 2018. Accessed March 10, 2022.

5. Farra, S. L., Gneuhs, M., Hodgson, E., Kawosa, B., Miller, E. T., Simon, A., Timm, N., &

Hausfeld, J. (2019). Comparative Cost of Virtual Reality Training and Live Exercises for Training Hospital Workers for Evacuation. Computers, informatics, nursing : CIN, 37(9), 446–454.

6. Marr, B. (2022). The Five Biggest Healthcare Tech Trends In 2022. Published January 10, 2022. Accessed March 26, 2022.

7. Glaser, J. (2022). ​​Leading Digital Transformation in Health Care. Accessed March 26, 2022.

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