By Matt Burgess

Those working in the medical profession can find themselves chronically overworked, often to a point where the long shifts they have to work can result in patient neglect and, in extreme cases, human error that can lead to deaths. In Europe the British Medical Association has warned that junior doctors are working 100-hour weeks despite laws in place to prevent it, and one representative of the UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners said that doctors are so overworked that they may present a risk to patients.

This was certainly a considered factor in the death of Libby Zion, in the US, during the 1980s. The college student’s death led to the passing of the Libby Zion Law, officially known as the New York State Department of Health Code, Section 405. Her father claimed the staff member providing treatment was overworked, writing in a New York Times column: “A resident working a 36-hour shift is in no condition to make any kind of judgment call – forget about life-and-death”.

The case was controversial and has divided opinion but as a result of her father’s campaigning, the law was introduced to restrict the number of hours medical staff could work for to 80 hours per week. This was officially made mandatory across the entire country in 2003.


There are many reasons why doctors and other medical professionals can be overworked, including growing patient numbers. A 1999 study recommended that doctors seeing more than three or four patients an hour may lead to “suboptimal visit content” and a 2007 study, while not putting a number on it, concluded “there is a limit to the number of patients each provider can effectively care for”.

Virtual reality could help to be an answer to this problem and have benefits for patients as well as doctors. It’s important to make clear that there’s not going to be any one scenario that fits all medical staff, countries, treatments, or any number of variables – public health is too complex to be vastly improved by one development. Yet VR can make a difference.

Instead of seeing 30 or 40 patients once a week, I can now stagger them and have double the amount of patients in therapy at the same time

“It allows me to see more patients,” says Brenda Wiederhold, of the Virtual Reality Medical Center, where she has been working with VR in a clinical field for 20 years. The staff at the centre conducted the first randomised clinical control trial with VR in San Diego back in 1996, she says. As VR has progressed from static screens to being on the verge of commercially available head-mounted displays, Wiederhold says this allows different treatment possibilities.

“Instead of seeing 30 or 40 patients once a week, I can now stagger them and have double the amount of patients in therapy at the same time. So I don’t have a backlog,” she says. The approach of Wiederhold’s VR medical centre is to provide therapy to those living with a variety of conditions by teaching them a number of skills, putting them in VR environments and encouraging them to transfer what they have learned to real-world situations.

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