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It’s no game: Virtual reality could be health care’s next big thing

May 14, 2021, 11:30 PM UTC
Virtual reality is being used in chronic pain management, labor and delivery, and for mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and phobias.
Press Herald photo by Ben McCanna—Getty Images

Tom Norris, a medically retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, has lived with chronic pain for 33 years.

“When the symptoms started, I had a hard time walking [because] my left hip hurt,” Norris says. Now, the pain is in his “back, both hips, all the way up my spine.”

Norris says enduring the pain is like “trying to fight with a fiery dragon with great big claws … and it takes over all my senses, where all I can think about is the pain.”

But a few years back, Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of Health Services Research for Cedars-Sinai and director of the Cedars-Sinai master’s degree program in health delivery science, introduced Norris to virtual reality. The lieutenant colonel slipped on a virtual reality headset and, over time, things started to change: “I push the dragon away,” he says. “The claws are still there, but I can’t feel them quite as badly.” 

Norris and Spiegel join Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe, the hosts of Fortune Brainstorm, a podcast that explores how technology is reshaping our world, to talk about uses of virtual reality in health care. Along with chronic pain management, VR is also being used in labor and delivery, and for mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and phobias.

Also on the show is Xavier Palomer, CEO of Psious, which developed a VR platform for therapists and other mental health professionals.

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