Virtual reality in medicine: how it works, areas of application and examples

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Virtual reality (VR) allows users to immerse themselves in computer-generated three- dimensional environments, interacting with them through devices such as visors, headsets, gloves and controllers. VR offers the possibility of realistic and immersive experiences, which can have various applications in the medical and health fields.

In today’s article, we will look at how and why VR works in medicine, what its advantages and challenges are, and give some concrete examples of the use of virtual reality in medicine. We will also see how VR relates to other technologies, such as augmented reality (AR).

Table of contents

How virtual reality works in medicine

VR in medicine is based on the principle of reproducing real or hypothetical situations that are useful for diagnosis, therapy, training, prevention or research. Simulation makes it possible to create controlled, customised and repeatable scenarios in which the doctor or patient can act and receive feedback in real time.

VR in medicine relies on specific software and hardware which, to avoid side effects such as motion sickness, must guarantee good graphic quality, low latency, synchronisation between audio and video, and calibration between real and virtual movements. These factors should not be underestimated, as they could cause feelings of nausea or dizziness.

virtual reality in medicine

Why use virtual reality in medicine

VR in medicine offers 3 advantages:

virtual reality in medicine

Examples of virtual reality in medicine

VR in medicine has already found 3 areas of application, let’s see which ones.


VR can be used to plan, simulate and guide surgical procedures, either in virtual or mixed mode, i.e. integrating real and virtual elements. In other words, VR can make it possible to visualise a patient’s internal organs in 3D, to practise on virtual anatomical models or to remotely control a surgical robot.


VR can be used to aid the recovery of motor or cognitive functions impaired by trauma, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases or other pathologies; it can be used to stimulate the movement of paralysed limbs, to train memory or attention, or to improve balance and coordination.


VR can be used to treat psychological disorders such as phobias, anxiety, depression, post- traumatic stress disorder, addictions or eating disorders. How? By exposing the patient to situations that cause him/her fear or discomfort, in a gradual and controlled manner, and teaching him/her coping or relaxation strategies.

Differences with augmented reality in medicine

VR is not the only technology that can be used in medicine to create immersive experiences. Another technology is augmented reality (AR); it adds digital elements to perceived reality,

without completely replacing it. AR uses ICT devices such as smartphones, tablets, glasses or contact lenses, which project information or images onto the screen or within the user’s field of vision.

AR also has several applications in medicine, here are the main ones.


Augmented reality can be used to visualise medical data or images, such as X-rays, ultrasound scans, tomography or MRI scans, by superimposing them on the patient’s body or an anatomical model. In addition, AR can allow the location of a tumour, blood vessel or nerve to be pinpointed more accurately.


Augmented reality, like virtual reality, can be used to teach or learn medical concepts or procedures in an interactive and collaborative manner. It can, for example, allow 3D visualisation of structures or functions of the human body, simulate examinations or operations, or share information with students and teachers.


AR can be used to provide remote medical assistance, in real time or deferred, to patients who cannot travel to a healthcare facility. Thanks to it, a patient’s vital parameters can be monitored, advice or prescriptions can be sent or received, and diagnosis or treatment can be carried out.

Reality and virtuality in medicine

VR and AR are two examples of technologies capable of changing the relationship between reality and virtuality in medicine, creating new opportunities and challenges. However, they are not the only ones. There are in fact other technologies that can be placed on a continuum between reality and virtuality, such as mixed reality (MR), which combines elements of VR and AR, or diminished reality (DR), which eliminates or hides elements of reality.

Each of these technologies poses ethical, legal and social questions that must be addressed carefully and responsibly. Consideration must be given to the possible psychological or physiological effects of prolonged or inappropriate use of the visors, the addiction or disorientation they may cause, and the risks of loss of identity or violation of privacy. The quality criteria, safety and efficacy of the technologies under consideration and the training, certification and supervision of the professionals who use them must also be assessed.

VR and AR in medicine are promising technologies, able to bring significant benefits in various fields, but they need critical reflection and appropriate regulation.

If you would like to learn more about these topics, continue reading our JOurnal. If, on the other hand, you would like to realise a virtual reality project in medicine, contact us by filling in the contact form below or by calling +390954683879.

IPPOCRATE AS is a company belonging to the JO Group cluster and has been developing digital health solutions for over 20 years. We realise tailor-made projects that make a real contribution to people’s lives. Contact us.

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