When you think of virtual reality (VR), you may think of a hot tech gadget or strange headgear that are all about seeing and viewing — the eyes. But that perception is actually quite limiting. Depending on the technology used, VR has the potential to generate a completely immersive environment that stimulates nearly all the senses. It is a powerful communication vehicle that allows you to feel. The simulated, feelings-provoking environment that VR provides has the potential for huge impact in many areas, and the health field is certainly one of them.

The initial uses of VR in the health industry involved generating surgical- and device training simulations. What better way to plan and practice a surgery than in a virtual, non-life-threatening environment? Here are a few exciting examples of surgical and other uses for VR:

  • Pioneering Surgery: Doctors at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Google Cardboard to develop a pioneering surgery technique, designed to save a baby born with only one lung and half a heart. The doctors mapped the baby’s heart in virtual reality, using the 360-degree image to effectively plan and practice the surgery.
  • Virtual Learning:  In April 2016, Dr. Shafi Ahmed, a cancer surgeon pioneering VR surgery at Royal London Hospital, broadcasted the first live surgery in virtual reality. A colon cancer procedure was streamed to thousands of medical students (and anyone else) watching on VR headsets.
  • Exposure Therapy: In recent years, VR took another major step in health when it was introduced as a potential treatment mechanism. With virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), patients are exposed to virtual environments that resemble normally fearsome real-life situations. For example, VRET has been used to treat people with phobias.
  • Physical Rehabilitation: Companies such as MindMaze are using virtual reality, brain imaging and video games to bring the benefits of rehab to sufferers of strokes and Parkinson’s disease.  The company has blended VR and augmented reality into digital treatments that aid patients’ recoveries, such as technology that teaches the brain how to use a damaged limb again.

Health companies are now looking at how to extend the impact of VR further. For example, could a doctor provide better care if he or she could feel like the patient? The answer is yes. The next game-changer in healthcare VR allows practitioners to “be the patient,” to feel what it is really like on the other side of the table, through complete immersion in a 3D environment true to a patient’s visual and auditory realities. Systems have been built to treat conditions ranging from schizophrenia to dementia to Wet AMD. Those who are not medical professionals can have the full experience as well, as more healthcare companies and brands turn to VR to show caregivers, friends and family what life is like for patients with a range of health conditions.

VR experiences promise to have an important impact on the future of understanding, diagnosing and treating health conditions — making it so much more than a tech toy or new gadget. It will be interesting to see how far the technology will go.

Jennifer Johnson is a senior vice president, Bioscience Communications, a DJE Holdings Company.