Whether it’s used to educate the next generation of clinicians or help patients cope with acute pain, virtual reality (VR) is clearly the next big thing in healthcare. Hospitals, health systems and research institutions are all using this emerging technology for a variety of innovative applications across the industry.


St. Jude Children’s Hospital is among a few leading organizations using VR as a means to help patients manage pain. Specifically, the renowned hospital is looking to reduce the discomfort that accompanies sickle cell disease in children and young adults. Unfortunately, the IV medications used in treatment don’t always work immediately. To address this issue, the hospital is conducting a study that will use virtual reality as a distraction technique while IV pain medication is administered. Patients will be able to dive into the ocean, experience marine wildlife and navigate through sunken ruins through an innovative VR app, diverting their attention away from the short-term pain.

Enabling “feel good hormones” through virtual interactions

Some experts believe that hormones are the key to understanding why VR has such potential in the area of pain management. One hormone in particular, DHEA, leads to positive feelings of self-fulfillment, gratitude and happiness, all of which can distract individuals from pain and discomfort. Calming experiences like sitting on a beach, watching the ocean or swimming with dolphins all raise DHEA—even, many believe—in a virtual setting. One of the clinicians actively testing out this theory within care delivery is Dr. Mike Foley, chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Banner University Medical Center.

Phoenix-based Banner Health is exploring the use of VR in the delivery room, in an effort to understand whether this intervention could help patients deal with labor pain and reduce the need for narcotic medications. Banner had already applied VR technology as a training tool for clinicians when Dr. Foley had heard anecdotal evidence about the value of VR following surgery. Given the current opioid crisis, he wanted to use this idea to help expectant moms deal with labor while receiving less pain medication, leading to safer deliveries and easier transitions home for both moms and babies. Dr. Foley and his team at Banner just completed a small randomized study of 20 which showed promising results in this area. He hopes to publish the study and expand on it for a larger pilot program, helping other providers understand the potential results associated with using VR for pain management.

Treating opioid use disorder

In another effort closely tied to the effects of the opioid epidemic, clinicians are also exploring the potential of VR to support patients with opioid use disorder and other addictions. Dr. Patrick Bordnick, dean and professor of the Tulane School of Social Work in New Orleans, developed a VR app designed to help people avoid relapses, which was funded in part by a financial award from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. The smart-phone enabled app puts users in a real-world scenario that contains a variety of “triggers” likely to cause cravings. A sample scenario might include watching someone else imbibe in an addictive substance at a party or social gathering.

“Virtual reality allows us to incorporate complex cues within an environment that might trigger an addict, such as hearing ice clink in a glass for an alcoholic,” said Dr. Bordnick. “This technology helps us understand these triggers and prepare individuals to deal with them in a real-world setting.”

Giving patients a 3D preview of their hospital visit

Some healthcare leaders are also using trying out this new technology as a way to educate patients and other stakeholders while marketing their services. HCA, one of the largest health systems in the country, has developed virtual reality tours for many of its hospitals.

“Virtual reality can help our patients know what to expect before they are ready to deliver a baby, or before they are admitted for surgery,” according to Jennifer Knowlton, Director of Marketing and Communications at StoneSprings Hospital Center, an HCA facility in Northern Virginia. “It can bring a great deal of comfort to patients who may be nervous or uncertain about an upcoming hospital visit.”

Whether this increased level of comfort or pain management is the ultimate goal, VR is putting an exciting new tool in the hands of both patients and clinicians. As the technology becomes even more sophisticated and affordable, experts expect that it will become a new standard of care within a variety of clinical settings.

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is the Creative Director of Activate Health, a Phoenix and Nashville-based marketing firm. Activate Health specializes in providing marketing, advertising and public relations support to entities across the healthcare industry including health technology firms, hospitals, health plans and health systems. Laura is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Arizona State University.

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