Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will be the next big computing platforms after PCs and smartphones.

Today, most people think of these technologies as an interface for games and entertainment, but virtual reality will soon be woven into all aspects of society, business, commerce and education—including healthcare.

The VR/AR market is predicted to reach $80 billion in sales by 2025, according to a new VR market report by Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research. Market penetration will be heavy in the healthcare sector, where VR applications are forecast to top $5.1 billion in sales by 2025, with 3.4 million active users. Goldman Sachs estimates that 8 million physicians and EMTs worldwide could use VR/AR technology, including 1.5 million medical professionals in the U.S. alone.

Many potential healthcare use cases exist for VR/AR technology, with the majority occurring in three areas—as a tool to help doctors perform medical procedures and daily tasks; for physical therapies and treatment of phobias such as the fear of heights; and to increase patient access to doctors through “virtual” office visits.

Virtual reality involves complete immersion in a fully imagined environment—think of staging 360-degree “virtual” operations to train surgeons. Augmented reality involves a headset that lets users simultaneously interact with their real-world environments—think of physical diagrams appearing on the lenses of head mounted displays for surgeons and medical technicians. For example, an image can be overlaid to support a computer-guided, AR-assisted arm surgery.

In current computer-guided surgeries, the doctor needs to shift his or her gaze from the patient to the monitor to perform the surgery. With the use of AR headsets, the doctor will be able to see the images superimposed on the patient. This in-line view makes the entire process seamless and natural, according to Jannick Rolland, professor of optical engineering at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics.

In another example, Phillips Healthcare and Accenture have partnered to develop an AR application that will enable doctors to monitor their patients’ vital signs and receive alerts when potential issues are detected. Other applications include providing real-time, contextual-based patient data to healthcare practitioners to improve the quality of patient care and reduce manual errors.

VR systems are already used for some healthcare applications, primarily to train doctors. The promise of affordable, mobile and always connected headsets with a natural see-through capability will open up many options for medical schools, hospitals and homecare services. For instance, a surgeon could participate remotely in an operation by watching live VR footage from the attending surgeon’s point of view, thus providing outside advice and medical expertise in real time.

Some VR applications have been commercialized already, including surgical pre-operation assessments and minimally invasive surgeries. Likewise, dentists can use dental simulations showing 3D models of the human oral cavity and teeth to conduct VR trainings.

When Google first introduced its AR glasses called Google Glass in 2013, several hospitals ran product trials. Some surgeons used Google Glass to project CT scans and MRIs onto their field of vision during operations. Other uses involved scanning bar codes to quickly gather patient medical information, and to notify doctors about lab results.

Virtual reality has become a powerful tool for mental therapies as well. VR systems are now used to treat patients with anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or phobias such as the fear of crowds or public speaking. By safely introducing patients to the sources of their fears within virtual environments, therapists can help patients build confidence. Artificial, controlled stimuli can be applied and slowly increased to accustom patients to situations that may trigger anxieties.

Therapists have also found VR to be an effective tool for social cognition training to help young autistic adults learn how to understand certain social cues.

Rehabilitation is another area that’s ripe for VR. Amputees can use virtual environments to manage phantom limb pain. The University of Washington HITLab has developed SnowWorld, an immersive virtual reality pain distraction system to divert the attention of burn victims away from the pain involved with their treatments.

Costs for VR/AR systems should come down over the next decade, helping to drive market growth. Adoption will also benefit from improved gesture recognition systems, such as haptic gloves and VR body suits.

Of course, some challenges still must be overcome before VR applications can be widely rolled out across the healthcare sector. For instance, privacy concerns must be addressed to ensure that any data transmitted by a VR device is encrypted to meet HIPAA regulations. Another issue involves the development of complex VR software for specialty physicians, which will need to be extremely precise in order to work properly.

VR and AR are set to have a profoundly transformative impact on the healthcare industry over the coming decade as the technology improves and costs come down. As a result, healthcare providers are embarking on an exciting new era to adopt VR/AR technologies that will increase caregiver efficiency while reducing patient suffering.

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