Big Ideas: Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

Jennifer Thew, RN, December 1, 2016

Improvements in technology and decreased cost of equipment have poised virtual reality to change the education of healthcare professionals and the clinical treatment of patients.

This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Patrick B. McGrath, PhD
Patrick B. McGrath, PhD

For most people, a quick trip to the gas station isn't a big deal. Gas is pumped and paid for, and sometimes coffee and a donut are purchased. But for someone with a history of alcohol abuse, a trip to the gas station can mean the difference between staying sober or not.

"You're going to go get gas one day, and guess what, there's going to be alcohol in the gas station," says Patrick B. McGrath, PhD, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. "Or you're going to be with a buddy that needs to stop at a liquor store and pick up a bottle of wine for a party that night. Do you just want to stay in the car every time? Or can you learn that you can walk through that and handle triggers and cravings and not have to drink?"

McGrath's goal for his patients, who include those with phobias, PTSD, and drug and alcohol issues, is for them to be active participants in life rather than sitting on the sidelines. One tool, he says, that has the potential to help them achieve this is virtual reality—the use of computer technology to immerse users in an interactive, sensory-rich environment that simulates the real world.

McGrath has been using virtual reality technology in his clinical practice for about eight years. But because of the cost of equipment and the need for a powerful computer to provide a high-quality, realistic experience, virtual reality's use has not been widespread across the healthcare industry.

But that is about to change. Big players such as Facebook, Samsung, and Microsoft are getting in on virtual reality and creating more affordable and accessible devices that provide high-resolution graphics.

Jennifer Thew, RN

Jennifer Thew, RN is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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