Put on a virtual reality headset, and you’re instantly transported to a computer-generated 3D environment. Over the past few decades, applications for this technology have slowly found their way into the medical field. They include educating physicians in training, resource materials, and innovative treatments. Once a novelty, virtual reality markets in healthcare are estimated to be 5.1 billion by 2025.

The technology has recently been used to treat phobias and psychological conditions, including soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Exposure therapy” through virtual reality can slowly habituate a patient to experiences that would trigger them in the real world. Some of this work has been pioneered by Albert Rizzo, a psychologist and director of medical virtual reality at USC Institute for Creative Technologies, who is also working on VR applications to prepare service members for the stress of combat. “Virtual reality simulations can achieve things that aren’t possible with traditional 20th century tools and methods,” he says.


Degree view afforded in virtual reality. A VR headset replaces the usual field of vision with a digital environment.


Number of college students with acrophobia—a fear of heights—slowly exposed to VR experiences of high places. The 1995 experiment was one of the first to show that the technology could be used as a treatment. 


Countries with viewers who tuned in to a London operating room in 2016. A surgery to remove a tumor from a patient’s colon was filmed with 360-degree cameras and live-streamed. Medical students and the curious public experienced the event through VR headsets.


Dollars to purchase the Medical Training Sim app from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Users are placed in the ER, where they plan and provide urgent treatment for a patient who has been injured in a traffic accident. The app works on a headset, priced at less than $100, and is powered by the user’s smartphone.


Anatomical structures and organs that can be explored, manipulated and isolated in the 3D Organon VR Anatomy app, a $30 virtual reality anatomy atlas. Viewers can remove or fade anatomical features to get a better view at underlying organs.