Increasingly, healthcare professionals and consumers are digital natives, meaning they have lived their entire lives with technology. Their worldview is a bit different than those of us who are digital immigrants, and they remember the introduction of each successive launch of innovative electronic technologies and devices.

One of the latest and most promising applications in digital health is virtual reality, defined by Wikipedia as an “interactive computer-generated experience taking place within a simulated environment.”

Researchers began using virtual reality in healthcare environments in the 1990s and applications have become more sophisticated over time, especially as today’s digital natives increasingly envision the possibilities. Today, two primary types of virtual reality are being used in healthcare:

  • Fully immersive — seeing only a computer-generated environment
  • Mixed reality — 3-D images projected onto the physical world

Fortune recently ran an article on virtual reality in the operating room, which described doctors slipping on goggles as they prepared for a risky brain surgery. The new technology can take conventional MRI and CT scan images and produce 3-D views of the brain, including the ridges, fissures, lobes and veins.

This is allowing neurosurgeons to simulate and explore their patient’s brain before beginning, possibly altering their plan for the procedure.

Many hospitals and schools are expanding their simulation laboratories to include virtual reality training for more efficient and effective clinical professionals. For instance, medical and nursing students can learn anatomy by exploring a life-like hologram of a lung or going inside a heart to view the valves and pumping blood.

And, any surgeon (new or experienced) in any specialty can leverage the technology to build competency, confidence and skill as they prepare for first time or complex surgical procedures. This is all very important given staff shortages, pressures to reduce costs, and efforts to improve the quality and safety of care provided.

But, virtual reality isn’t just for the clinicians. These technologies are also being used by physicians and other clinical staff to meet the needs of patients.

Virtual reality, combined with gaming technologies, have been helping distract patients, especially children, to minimize their anxiety and pain. Therapeutic applications are prompting activity and movement by users, aiding physical and occupational rehabilitation. Additionally, Boston University’s virtual patient advocate, Louise, teaches patients about important components of their after hospital care plan, such as diagnosis, medications and follow-up appointments.

The Fortune article notes how neurosurgeons are also reviewing the planned surgery with their patients in virtual reality. Not only can these and other surgeons ease many patients’ fears, but also can help them to be more informed when providing their consent for complex and risky procedures. This is good for patients, and their care teams.