Virtual reality is becoming increasingly useful in medical training—here’s how

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published March 4, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual reality (VR) offers residents and other learners an immersive and enjoyable experience that complements more-typical teaching methods.

  • Learners can make mistakes without consequences in a VR-training environment, supporting improved performance. VR is also less expensive than other forms of simulation learning.

  • The application of VR in medical education and training ranges from improving interview and counseling skills to teaching surgery and other procedures.

VR, or augmented reality, is quickly becoming well-known among the general population. Most popularly, VR headsets allow users to engage in an immersive version of their favorite video game. Now, VR is starting to be utilized in education and training across industries.

It's even working its way into medical training—both behavioral and procedural—offering an easily replicable and effective means for educators to impart various skill sets.

Benefits of VR in medical training

Medical education is evolving at an unrelenting clip, continually integrating new methods of learning.  Simulation, for example, supplants rote learning by providing practical, relevant, and experiential lessons. Simulation-based learning joins problem-based learning and communication-skills training as buzzworthy approaches to training tomorrow’s doctors.

An example is discussed in an article in Future Healthcare Journal.[] VR learners use a headset and laptop to engage in interactive experiences typical to the medical environment. The setup is simple and requires no faculty members. Learners can partake whenever they wish and need not be confined to large centers, as access is flexible.

VR scenarios are repeatable, meaning learners can make mistakes without consequence, and thus the technology supports improved performance. Learners also find the experience enjoyable, as gamification is an alluring aspect of the technology. Institutions also pay less for VR simulation vs other forms of simulation learning, for which costs are often unanticipated or prohibitive.

Effectiveness of training methods

Various findings support the effectiveness of VR as a tool of immersive learning in a range of disciplines, not only medicine. In medicine, studies have indicated that medical students experience higher levels of knowledge gained with VR than with screen-based methods. In surgery, the use of VR has been shown to reduce injury, increase the efficiency of operations, and enhance clinical outcomes. 

A study reported in Frontiers in Virtual Reality compared the effectiveness of  low-cost cardboard viewer VR (CVVR) with that of commercially available integrated headset VR (IHVR) in helping radiation oncology residents learn to perform an intracavitary procedures.[]

Results showed that those training with immersive VR learned more, felt that the information included was more relevant to real-world environments, and felt a greater sense of “being there” during the learning experience.

Intriguingly, the VR delivered through the simple cardboard viewer was shown to potentially be just as effective as that delivered via a more expensive headset. This finding could drive down the costs of VR simulation training even further.

How VR is currently being used

The potential of VR in medical education and training appears limitless.

As the authors writing in Future Healthcare Journal explain: “If you can imagine being in a highly realistic computer game, you will have some approximation of what VR feels like. In the context of medical training this can include virtual wards, interactive patients, colleagues and relatives, with interaction similar to the real world.”

The authors give some illustrative examples of VR’s application.

The virtual ED

VR allows learners to practice in a virtual ED to assess presentations such as chest pain. Learners can practice taking a medical history, while examining, diagnosing, and even treating the patient. “Family members and an interdisciplinary team can be added, with everything from patient observations to blood [gasses] to realistic conversation adapting dynamically, as in real life,” the authors explain.

“Patients can become confused, agitated and look physically unwell, while the bustle of a virtual hospital and emotional engagement with emergency scenarios and lifelike characters in real time builds a sense of stress. The focus in such scenarios is on decision making, critical thinking and clinical reasoning, with scenarios being designed to replicate human interaction in the real world,” they continued. 


Another area where VR has been used to positive effect is with laparoscopy.

Typically, medical students, residents, and OR nurses receive little training in laparoscopic technique. But one study found that, after 6 consecutive weeks of VR training, OR nurses were just as skilled at laparoscopy as medical residents and postgraduate students.[] 

“The integration of virtual surgery simulation technology in surgical training holds promise for bridging the gap in laparoscopic skill development among healthcare professionals,” the authors wrote.

They project that improving VR training in laparoscopy can “transform surgical training across medical disciplines. They continued: “Integrating these advanced methods not only aids new healthcare providers but also shows potential for enhancing patient outcomes and lowering the incidence of surgical complications.”

Behavioral health guidance

At Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the PREVENT curriculum—Promoting Resilience and Emotional Health through Virtual Education in Training—provides a virtual environment for practice for conditions such as substance dependence and eating disorders. A usability study on PREVENT among 3rd-year pediatric residents found that they were successfully trained to provide behavioral health anticipatory guidance to patients and their families.[]

According to the researchers, “Quantitatively, resident participants in PREVENT reported a high level of immersion, spatial presence, and cognitive involvement. Qualitative data indicated that residents perceived PREVENT as effective in expanding their behavioral health anticipatory guidance and motivational interviewing knowledge and skills by providing the appropriate breadth and depth of content and effectively employing deliberate practice to promote skill development."

"Residents indicated that the curriculum was applicable to real-world practice and balanced the depth of skill development with a feasible length of training."

Authors, JMIR Pediatrics and Parenting

Looking forward

The experts writing in Future Healthcare Journal predict that VR as a tool of medical education and training will benefit from increased acceptance and advancements in technology moving forward. For instance, when VR is combined with AI, educators will be able to further tease out issues affecting large numbers of learners. Learners will also be able to use the technology in an increasing number of environments, including the home, and to target more visceral, including haptic, experiences. 

Remote, collaborative learning could also involve multiple learners, reminiscent of massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). These collaborative efforts could bridge healthcare systems, societies, and cultures, therefore fostering a global healthcare system.

The current Assessment Guidebook from the ACGME promotes the use of VR, which bodes well for the use of this technology in the routine training of residents.[] ”Virtual reality (VR) simulations or environments use computers sometimes combined with anatomical models to mimic as much as is feasible realistic organ and surface images and the touch sensations (computer-generated haptic responses) a physician would expect in a real patient,” states the ACGME.

What this means for you

The use of VR in medical training is growing in popularity. VR represents a cheap, reliable, low-stakes method to garner valuable skill sets. The technology can be expanded to include any learner, including practicing physicians. It’s likely only a matter of time before such simulation becomes as routine as browsing research for CME or attending a conference online. 

Read Next: Assessing competency in residents and fellows—how do you measure up?
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