Virtual Reality: An Emerging Game Changer In Healthcare

Virtual Reality: An Emerging Game Changer In Healthcare
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By Eric Williams, MFA

As Obamacare returns to center stage, stakeholders in the healthcare debate will look for ways to squeeze costs while improving medical care.

I am not a doctor, politician, or accountant. I am an Emmy Award-winning producer in interactive educational media and director of a cutting edge Master of Fine Arts in communication media. I believe there are ways to use new technologies in virtual and augmented reality to hold down medical costs and enhance care.

Virtual Emergency Room

Collaborating with academics and healthcare experts at Ohio University, Northern Arizona University, and OhioHealth, our Immersive Media Initiative is creating a virtual trauma bay for pennies on the dollar compared to the real thing.

Imagine putting on a headset and immediately you are in a trauma bay with real patients. You can hear and see everything just by turning your head: the patient, the medical team, and the equipment. You are there. By spring, the next class of emergency room physicians will be able to participate in this sort of training.

With 360-degree video, the viewer is in control of what is being watched, and when. Imagine being able to freeze an image at any point during a live trauma and then being able to look around and observe important elements of the room: the medical monitors, the patient, or the professionals.

The audio is immersive as well. You hear the monitors behind you, and can look and see them. Cross talk between team members is crystal clear. If you want to isolate on the head nurse’s interaction with the team, you can do that. Then you can watch the whole trauma again, this time from the perspective of the head surgeon.

Virtual trauma room training brings three important cost-effective benefits to healthcare:

• First, it helps acclimate newcomers to a stressful, chaotic job setting that has low tolerance for error.

• Second, it allows students to experience the realities of the emergency room without getting in the way or putting others at risk.

• And third, it allows experienced professionals to assess their work in a way that hasn’t been possible before. It’s like post-game analysis, on steroids.


Training via photography, audio, and video are not new to healthcare. In the 90’s, I was the "video guy" at OhioHealth Grant Medical Center in Columbus, OH. Hospitals like Grant have a constant need for video to document, promote, and train medical professionals. Two decades ago, I was choosing the shots, editing video, and showing medical students what I thought they should be seeing.

This year, I returned to the trauma center at Grant with a virtual reality team from Ohio University’s Immersive Media Initiative. Using five cameras and eight microphones, we recorded five medical traumas during a 12-hour period on a weekend in July. Respecting privacy, we agreed to use footage only if patients granted permission; three of five did so. We produced three 20-minute 360-degree immersive experiences that allow medical students to observe and listen as if they were in any one of three positions in the trauma bay.

Our goal is to build a library of low-cost, easily accessible virtual reality videos on a wide variety of trauma cases.

Broader Changes to Healthcare

With eye-tracking technology, multiple-user headsets, and tactile interaction, I expect these technologies to expand, to help develop medical students into medical professionals more quickly, more efficiently, and at a higher caliber than ever before.

In April, cancer surgery in London was live-streamed via two 360-degree cameras. Rather than just a few students peering over the shoulder of surgeon Shafi Ahmed, medical students and other observers from around the world could "be there" by wearing low-cost virtual reality goggles.

At Northern Arizona University, Petra Williams is using virtual reality technology to acclimatize Doctor of Physical Therapy students to new environments so they are better prepared for clinical experiences. Meanwhile, Embodied Labs created a virtual reality experience called "We Are Alfred," to show young medical students how it feels to be 74 years old with audio and visual impairments.

Virtual reality is on track to change healthcare as we know it, to modernize training, speed rehabilitation, mitigate phobias, improve doctor-to-patient empathy, and enable virtual medicine.

About the Author

Eric Williams is an associate professor at Ohio University's Scripps College of Communication, Athens, OH, where he is the director of the MFA in Communication Media Arts and the co-creator of the Immersive Media Initiative at the Game Research and Immersive Design Lab.

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