Virtual reality check –The use of VR in the medical sector

The global augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality VR (collectively referred to here as “VR”) market reached 28 billion US dollars in 2021 and is predicted to rise to over 250 billion US dollars by 2028. 

VR is a game changer which is set to inspire new opportunities beyond the gaming industry.  In particular, the medical sector is embracing the use of VR. For example, during the successful surgery recently performed on three-year-old conjoined twins Bernardo and Arthur Lima in Rio de Janeiro, surgeons in separate countries wore headsets and operated in the same “virtual reality room” together for the first time.  

VR has the potential to be lower-risk, more cost-effective and less time-consuming for patients and healthcare professionals. VR can help doctors diagnose and treat patients quickly and accurately, without the need for referrals or waiting lists, avoiding the risks of late diagnoses. VR in paediatrics informs and reassures young patients before operations to reduce their level of anxiety. As manufacturers respond to rising demand and deliver lighter materials and more economical designs, VR technologies have the potential to be much more affordable.

However, it is often the case that innovation can throw up legal and regulatory issues.  The FDA identified the principal risks associated with using VR in the medical sector include: –

  • The risk to health – for example due to cybersickness (like “motion sickness”, probably caused by the mismatch between the motion perceived in VR and the motion perceived by the inner ear), the increased risk of seizures due to low-frequency flickering of images or brightness, and the risk of collisions and falls due to lack of awareness of the user’s real-life surroundings.
  • The risk of privacy infringements – in addition to the usual data-privacy risks associated with using computers and other electronic devices in the medical sector, VR will use cameras and other sensors to track the body and the user’s bodily motions, surroundings and in certain cases facial expressions.  

Given the advantages of VR it is likely that governments, medical suppliers and professionals will be keen to overcome these challenges.