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Virtual Reality in Healthcare: Toy or Tool?

Virtual Reality in Healthcare: Toy or Tool?

The quality and usability of Virtual reality (VR) has been propelled forward, driven by the gaming industry. It’s commonly available on most smartphone devices and the creation of low-cost cardboard headsets mean it is now affordable to everyone. But in healthcare and specifically anaesthetics, the use of VR to help improve patient care isn’t new.

In 1996, Dr Burt published an article in the British Journal of Anaesthesia outlining how VR could be used to teach healthcare professionals new skills, facilitating the practise in simulated scenarios1. Following this, VR has been used as a tool to successfully distract patients from painful procedures, reducing their pain levels and need for strong painkillers2.

A study assessing the human brain’s response to pain while using VR using MRI scans, has shown that it reduces the user’s perception and awareness of the painful stimuli3.

But distraction therapy is only one way in which VR can help patients, more recently studies have found that using VR to help prepare patients for hospital is beneficial. In these studies, in both children and adults, patients were provided with a VR tour on the day of the operation that outlined the process of having an operation.  They reported that these tours reduced anxiety levels and improved satisfaction with care in both children and adults 5,6.

However, VR research is still in its infancy and we do not know the full impact of the use of VR in healthcare. We’re unable to currently say that all VR is beneficial, but rather that specific software (apps) used with certain VR headsets improve care in distinct patient groups. It is unclear if these results are reproducable in other healthcare settings or patients. It is also unclear if its use as a distraction, preparation or combined tool is better at reducing anxiety, or which patients are most likely to benefit. Watch this space!


Read Dr Evan’s article title:  Virtual reality in pediatric anesthesia: a toy or a tool? published in Pediatric Anaesthesia in 2020:


  1. Burt D. Virtual reality in anaesthesia. British Journal of Anaesthesia 1995; 75: 472-80.
  2. Malloy KM, Milling LS. The effectiveness of virtual reality distraction for pain reduction: a systematic review. Clin Psychol Rev 2010; 30: 1011-8.
  3. Hoffman HG, Richards TL, Coda B, et al. Modulation of thermal pain-related brain activity with virtual reality: evidence from fMRI. Neuroreport 2004; 15: 1245-8.
  4. Ryu JP, S. Park, J. Kim, J. et al. Randomized clinical trial of immersive virtual reality tour of the operating theatre in children before anaesthesia. Br J Surg 2017; 104: 1628-33.
  5. Bekelis K, Calnan D, Simmons N, et al. Effect of an Immersive Preoperative Virtual Reality Experience on Patient Reported Outcomes: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Annals of Surgery 2016; 30:

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