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Game changer? The role of virtual reality in healthcare

Game changer? The role of virtual reality in healthcare

In the first installment of three-part series exploring virtual and augmented reality, Harrison Gaiger outlines the medical applications of VR and how pharma can leverage this innovative technology in the future.

The next decade promises to be an exciting time for science and innovation. Technological advancements are being made on a daily basis and many of these have the potential to directly impact our everyday lives. In fact, technology is changing at such a rate that it can often seem difficult to keep up. One technological advancement with the potential to change how we interact with technology and each other is Virtual Reality (VR) – immersive computer-generated environments that place users in seemingly life-like situations with which they can interact. VR, once the stuff of science-fiction, is now becoming a viable mainstream product.

Since the launch of top-end devices such as the Oculus Rift headset and many simpler, more affordable designs such as the Google Cardboard, interest in VR has sky-rocketed. Coupled with advancements in smartphone technology it is now possible for a huge number of consumers to experience VR.

While gaming and watching movies may be the first things that come to mind when thinking about VR, there are many other applications the technology is being used for. One of the most important developments in VR is its use in the healthcare industry. For a while now I’ve been interested in the evolving use of VR for a wide range of medical applications and how it is being used to significantly improve patient lives. It seems to me that there are four main areas where this technology is most utilised: Diagnostics and planning, medical training, treatment, and rehabilitation.

Diagnostics and planning

VR is increasingly being used as a diagnostic tool for various diseases, from mental conditions like Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury, to eye conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma. It enables physicians to arrive at a diagnosis in conjunction with other methods such as PET, CT and MRI scans and in some instances removes the need for invasive diagnostic procedures.

In terms of planning, VR is helping physicians to prepare for surgeries. To determine how best to carry out procedures, surgeons require realistic images of the patients’ anatomical structures such as bones and tissues. Using these images they can make more informed decisions about what course of action to take. In 2015 Dr Redmond Burke, the chief cardiovascular surgeon at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, completed heart surgery on a baby born with only half a heart and one lung. He planned the entire procedure on a low-cost Google Cardboard headset which allowed him to view 3D images of the baby’s heart and plot the best approach to surgery.

Medical training

Knowledge of the human anatomy is the foundation of all medical knowledge. Students traditionally learn about this in their first year of medical school by dissecting cadavers. These provide a realistic experience, but are often in limited supply and can be difficult to obtain, store and dispose of properly.

VR is revolutionising the way future HCPs learn about our anatomies. Physician and nurse educators are continually discovering new and innovative ways to leverage immersive technologies such as VR and transform medical education. For example, medical students at the University of California San Francisco are using VR training to explore the human body and get a more complete understanding of the complex structures that make up our bodies. Students use VR simulations to remove individual layers of the body allowing them to better understand the interaction between muscles, organs, nerves, and blood vessels in a ‘living’ system.


Advances in VR technology also present new opportunities for treating patients. One area in which VR is especially helpful is the treatment of anxiety disorders and phobias, which affect how a sufferer thinks, acts, and physically feels; and can considerably limit quality of life. Many anxiety disorders can be effectively treated with Graded-Exposure Therapy (GET), a specialised technique which helps patients to develop coping strategies by slowly exposing them to their fears in a controlled environment. In recent years clinics have successfully begun to use VR to create realistic virtual environments that simulate feared situations or objects. While patients are in the simulation, therapists can closely monitor physiological indicators of stress, including heart rate and respiration using body-tracking technology. One of the benefits of using this over conventional GET methods is the ability to tailor sessions to each patient’s individual needs much more effectively and to easily stop or repeat them depending on the patient’s progress.

Additionally, VR is also helping to treat people suffering from psychotic disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies has been using VR to treat PTSD using ‘Virtual Vietnam’ simulations. Using virtual GET, war veterans are able to relive traumatic events in a safe and controlled immersive environment. This allows them to work through their trauma and deal with the feelings that arise as a result of this in a healthy way, without the destructive consequences that untreated PTSD can often have for themselves and the people around them.


Another healthcare application in which VR shows a lot of promise is rehabilitation for people with physical disabilities. In these settings, VR aims to help improve motor skills and muscle recovery in a safe and non-invasive way. Using VR technology, physical therapists are able to supplement traditional therapies with ‘VR Therapy’ and translate rehabilitative exercises into real-life situations for patients. This has proven particularly successful for stroke rehabilitation. By simulating real-life activities, stroke patients are able to work on self-care skills in a setting that is often difficult to recreate in a clinical environment. In one study published in the Neurology and Therapy journal, stroke patients who took part in VR rehabilitation sessions experienced more improvements in arm and hand movement compared to conventional methods after four weeks of therapy. In the months following the study, therapists found that VR patients continued to have increased mobility than the non-VR patients.

Virtual reality in pharma marketing

But how does this impact the marketing of pharmaceutical products and services? Pharma, biotech and medical device manufacturers need to communicate with doctors and consumers in different ways, but also in a way that differentiates their message from competitors and cuts through the abundance of health information that is readily available online. VR technology can allow them to do this in an innovative and engaging way. Many companies are already beginning to leverage VR for a wide range of purposes including awareness, education, and marketing.

One example of this is GlaxoSmithKline's ‘Migraine Experience’ campaign which used 360° VR technology to help raise awareness and foster empathy for migraine sufferers; while promoting their product Excedrin Migraine. In 2016 GSK developed an immersive VR experience to help replicate common migraine symptoms, such as light and sound, disorientation, and visual distortion to help non-migraine sufferers better comprehend the extent of the condition. In addition to the VR experience, GSK produced four videos of couples, where one partner ‘tried on’ the migraine of the other, plus a series of TV advertisements to support the online videos and promote Excedrin Migraine. The campaign saw nearly 400,000 social media engagements and nearly four million views in the first three weeks of being published.

Another promising use of VR in pharma marketing is the development of virtual product demonstrations for sales reps. For example, Novartis recently worked with app developers Amplified Robot to create a VR smartphone app to help demonstrate the mechanism of action for one of their latest products. Using a VR headset, users could experience a 360 degree, 3D animation of how certain body tissues and molecules interacted with each other. While only used at the company’s Science and Innovation Day, if rolled out to sales reps this interactive marketing tool would enable consumers to see how a product works in a more visually engaging way, would increase both information recall and the likelihood of them showing the product to other colleagues.


Of course with any emerging technology, there are a range of issues to overcome. One of the main barriers to the widespread use of VR technology is that it often makes people feel disorientated and nauseous over time, with 25% to 40% of consumers saying they experience motion sickness. Scientists have recently confirmed that the new wave of headsets do indeed cause a form of nausea dubbed ‘Cyber Sickness’. As a result, manufacturers and software developers have been working tirelessly to combat the side-effects of prolonged use. However, many in the VR industry fear this will be a major obstacle to mass adoption of the technology.

There are also the cost implications to consider. It takes several components to build a VR project and costs vary depending on the content, hardware, and software. VR can be as simple as filming a 360 degree video and posting it on social media, to creating a more immersive environment with high-end cameras, and developing complex and interactive VR experiences. Headsets currently cost anywhere from $12.99 for the Google Cardboard to $3,000 for the Microsoft HoloLens. But it’s the content creation and software development that incurs the highest costs. To develop a basic VR application with minimal features costs between $10,000 and $25,000. Highly immersive and interactive experiences can cost well over $100,000.

With such drawbacks, it begs the question as to whether VR would really be an effective replacement to other methods of communicating with healthcare consumers. If the pharmaceuticals, biotech and medical device industries were to invest heavily in VR technology, would it really pay off? Perhaps, for certain therapy areas, in certain situations, but not across the board.

Looking to the future

VR technology is still in the early stages of being applied to medical practice and yet has already made a huge impact on the healthcare industry. While technological fads come and go, it’s not difficult to imagine VR standing the test of time - despite its current shortcomings. Device costs will decline as demand and available options increase; and standards are continually being redefined as scientists work to reduce the causes of Cyber Sickness.

VR not only allows medical students and seasoned healthcare professionals to test and learn new skills in a safe and immersive environment; but has the potential to help treat patients in new and effective ways. In terms of the business applications, VR is especially effective for pharmaceutical and device marketing, because it creates an opportunity for companies to establish a strong emotional connection among target consumers and their products.

Despite all this there are still many unanswered questions – What role will VR play in the long-term future of healthcare? Can VR devices take over as the ‘go-to’ method for areas of treatment such as surgery and rehabilitation? And potentially one of the most intriguing questions for our clients, in what ways can the pharmaceutical industry further benefit from VR? Regardless of its infancy, VR technology is most likely here to stay and tech-savvy pharmaceutical marketers should consider adding it to their future strategies as an invaluable means for engaging with customers.

In the second installment of this three-part series I’ll explore the use of augmented reality (AR) in pharmaceutical marketing and question if it has greater long-term potential over VR. Finally, in part three, I’ll look at the opportunities for using both VR and AR in healthcare market research.

Part 2 - A common reality: How augmented reality is transforming the future of pharmaceutical marketing »

Part 3 - Can virtual reality revolutionise the way we conduct healthcare market research? »

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