Virtual Reality: The New Frontier of Health-Care Training

Healthcare Innovation + Transformation Technology

Virtual reality offers huge opportunities in the high-paced, high-pressure world of health care and medical training. Here, Future State Learning and Development Lead Jennifer Riebli and Columbia University Health IT Lab Fellow Sheila Babnis share some of its industry-changing capabilities.


Virtual reality (VR) offers amazing capabilities in the world of medical training, where simulations of life-and-death situations can provide a safe space for real-world learning. As a Health IT Lab Fellow at Columbia University, Future State board member Sheila Babnis is part of a collaborative team dedicated to improving the world of health care through technology and innovative business practices. Through her work she inspires health-care leaders and start-ups to rethink how they are contributing to the health care ecosystem. Sheila is also a member of Springboard’s Life Science Council, a group of experts across the world of biotech, pharma, medical devices and health IT who invest their “human capital” to grow the pipeline of high-growth, women-led companies.

“I am working with purpose, inspiring greatness,” Babnis says. “I coach leaders who are making change happen. I work with women entrepreneurs and small company leaders in health care delivering a new standard of care.”

Future State Learning and Development Practice Lead Jennifer Riebli has worked with Future State for over 20 years, using her passion for teaching others to help design learning experiences for professionals in a variety of fields. “As a learning and development specialist, I’m very focused on designing learning experiences and journeys that incorporate what we know about how people learn and how they change their behaviors,” Riebli says.

As a presenter at Stanford Medicine X | ED—a conference on the future of medical education at the intersection of people, technology and design—Riebli will share how virtual reality can be deployed in the health care sector, from training to procedures.

In this interview, Babnis and Riebli share more about the use of VR in health care.

Tell us about Stanford Medicine X and its mission.

Sheila Babnis: The Stanford Med Ex program has a unique opportunity to disrupt and evolve the thinking, testing and application of new health-care approaches to medicines, diagnostics, surgery, home health, education and more. This program enables users, patients, physicians, payers, customers and providers an opportunity to share their latest thinking, work and resulting outcomes. They are breaking the education model—breaking the mold and empowering everyone in the health-care ecosystem to be part of the change in everyday ways.

What are the opportunities the Medicine X | ED conference brings to disruption and innovation in medical education?

Jen Riebli: Medicine X | ED focuses on the future of medical education with the goal of co-creation—bringing patients, caregivers, providers, technologists and researchers together to collaborate and thereby disrupt the norms. This year we will hear from doctors, medical students, experts in health care, medical technology and education on topics such as adult learning theory, the power of storytelling, design thinking and virtual reality in training.

What do you see as some of the key challenges in medical education over the next few years?

JR: Information overload. With so much advancement and change occurring in medicine and health care, which will only continue, how can we find ways to deepen key competencies so medical professionals are equipped with the core fundamentals rather than inundated with vast amounts of information during training? How can we also help doctors, clinicians, researchers and caregivers leverage technology advancements so they can focus on deepening the unique aspects humans provide to medicine and care?

SB: Yes, some of the key challenges are the volume and speed of new information, and transitioning standards of care as a result of evolving science, diagnostics and studies (clinical and real world). We want physicians, patients and providers to be able to stay current, adjust their approaches and be empowered to apply the best health-care approach to the situation. 

What potential can VR technology bring to bear on medical education and its upcoming challenges?

JR: I see both virtual reality and augmented reality helping bring professionals closer to their patients while also allowing them to reach more patients across geographies.

SB: VR has so many potential and immediate applications in medical education, from the university setting and residency to ongoing learning. It can be used for technical training as well as relationship aspects of learning. Current uses today are in surgery, robotic surgeries, patient experience, physician empathy work and more. In addition, there are applications in teaching patients how to use medication, give shots, use new home devices, etc. We want to learn anywhere, any place, any time—VR is helping make that happen.

JR: I agree with Sheila, they both allow learning to be ever-accessible, which is critical in order to stay abreast of advancements and innovations in medicine. As the technology itself improves, the experiences for both will feel more natural—VR will be a true extension of our physical space, our bodies and our minds.

What are the benefits and concerns of VR technology?

JR: Specific areas where virtual reality can add tremendous value in training include re-creating dangerous situations to provide a safe environment to learn, changing the scale of an experience (making something larger in order to view it better), and providing 360-degree and highly interactive experiences rather than 2D and passive viewing.

SB: Benefits: Accelerated learning, low-risk practice, experiential components, nonverbal understanding, empathy. Concerns: Making sure all the bugs are worked out, and that the low-risk experience does not counteract or eliminate real-life issues.

JR: In our presentation, we hope to share how virtual reality can help by creating a more immersive experience to enhance empathy, skill and help prioritize the knowledge that’s important to retain.