How Virtual Reality will be used by doctors to treat patients

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Earlier this year at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Alfred-Marc Iloreta prepared for surgery by reaching for an unexpected tool. The otolaryngologist didn’t pick up his scalpel. He picked up a virtual reality (VR) headset. Iloreta’s patient had a brain tumor, located in a precarious area of the head, right behind his ear. This made the operation even more difficult. The surgeon needed to remove the tumor before it could grow further into the brain and wreak havoc.

Best known for use in immersive games and other-world entertainment, VR headsets could become an innovative tool for many industries, including the medical field. Iloreta strapped on an Oculus headset and booted up Surgical Theater, new software that creates a 3D model of the tumor. Now armed with a new form of visual information, he could plot out a plan for surgery and prepare for the intricate operation. “The tumors that we deal with are really complex… they exist in the middle of your head,” said Iloreta. He said VR surgery techniques can make a huge impact, especially for challenging cases. “Some of these approaches you are literally slicing someone’s scalp off.”


Worldwide, the number of annual inpatient procedures has grown to exceed 232 million. In America, between 100,000 and 200,000 of those patients die from mistakes. But experts believe that VR can greatly reduce the number of accidents on the operation table.It wouldn’t be the first time technology helped improve medical procedures. Doctors at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto recently designed a 3D printed heart to prepare for surgery on tiny valves. Surgeons at the Jacobs Institute were able to do a dry-run of a tricky aneurysm repair.

According to Ed Bradley, a professor of surgery at Florida State University, 4K cameras and robotic systems have become nearly as important as anesthesia and sterile practices when performing minimally invasive surgery. VR is poised to become equally valuable for more complex procedures.

VR surgery techniques can make a huge impact

Iloreta’s surgery was exceedingly delicate, as tumors in the middle of the head are surrounded by many tiny blood vessels. About 25 percent of the blood in the body flows through the headand one false move can result in heavy bleeding and stroke. Surgical Theater allows Iloreta to do dry-runs through complex surgeries before ever entering the operation room. The patient’s MRI and CT scan data gets fed into the digital simulation, where the doctors can analyze it naturally. “The goal, the anatomical nirvana, is where we can understand the whole structure three-dimensionally,” he said. “With immersive virtual reality, we can gain in-depth 3D understanding much quicker.”

This technology can also become a valuable education tool for training future doctors. According to Moritz Schwyzer, the CEO of Vedavi Medical who develops VR software for anatomical visualization, “VR gives students better understanding of the body’s plasticity and depth,” Schwyzer said. Students such as those Iloreta instructs at Mount Sinai can use it learn about the complex structures of human anatomy.


Iloreta said another huge benefit to VR technology is its potential to reduce medical costs for patients. The average cost of surgery in the US is around $62 a minute. Detailed prep and planning could cut down on time significantly. In addition to its potential to cut the cost of surgery, VR technology could help patients heal faster, according to Marissa Powers, a bioengineer in Venture, Intel’s flagship technical leadership pipeline program. Powers said VR might even help “gamify” physical therapy. For example, an injured athlete could use a VR headset and do rehabilitation exercises that make her feel like she’s playing hockey.

A study from Duke University and the Walk Again Project saw “unprecedented” results in training paraplegics to regain muscle control using a VR and exoskeleton setup, according to researcher Miguel Nicolelis, interviewed in Science Magazine. As more experts in the medical field see positive results from using VR technology, more believe it could become a reliable tool for improving and saving lives. Back in Iloreta’s real-world theater, his careful planning paid off. Despite the tumor’s proximity to critical structures, he removed it successfully, all with remarkably low trauma to the patient.