The Past, Present, and Future of Virtual Reality in Pharmacy Education

Leanne Coyne, PhD; Thayer A. Merritt, BS; Brittany L. Parmentier, PharmD; Rachel A. Sharpton, PharmD; Jody K. Takemoto, PhD


Am J Pharm Educ. 2019;83(3) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Objective: To characterize how virtual reality (VR) has been and is being used in pharmacy education, and evaluate the projected utility of VR technology in pharmacy education in the future.

Findings: Virtual reality technology has been used in pharmacy education for many years to provide engaging learning experiences. Although these learning experiences were not available in the three-dimensional digital environments provided by current VR, they demonstrated improvements in learning. Recent technological advancements have substantially increased the potential usefulness of VR for pharmacy education by providing immersive educational activities that mimic real world experiences to reinforce didactic and laboratory concepts. Virtual reality training that uses head-mounted displays is just beginning in pharmacy education, but more educational VR programs are becoming available. Further research will be necessary to fully understand the potential impact of VR on pharmacy education.

Summary: Virtual reality technology can provide an immersive and interactive learning environment, overcoming many of the early challenges faced by instructors who used virtual activities for pharmacy education. With further technological and software development, VR has the potential to become an integral part of pharmacy education.


Over the past few decades, instructional technology has progressed from chalkboards to computer-based slideshows and beyond; however, the format of pharmacy classes has been slower to evolve. No matter what technology has been available, pharmacy education typically involves an instructor standing at the front of a large classroom, delivering content, hoping to impart knowledge. Low classroom attendance is likely multifactorial; however, there is some evidence to suggest that increasingly poor attendance is supported by lecture and lecture content being accessible through digital means.[1–3] As qualitative and quantitative evidence has proven that active learning is more effective than passive learning, instructors are now seeking alternative pedagogies to lectures.[4–6] Providing alternatives to lectures appears to be particularly important for 21st century students, who prefer more independent, task-based learning strategies and the integration of technology.[7] To address the learning needs of today's student, educators have begun to adapt their teaching styles to engage learners through the use of active-learning and through incorporation of educational technology.[8,9] In everyday practice, pharmacists use problem-solving skills to address numerous patient care issues. The Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) emphasizes that pharmacy programs provide students with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to provide patient-centered care and solve problems.[10] Therefore, pharmacy students must be provided ample opportunities to hone their skills. Practice experiences are arguably the best way to prepare students for a career in pharmacy. However, practice experiences involve challenges such as securing enough sites for all students and ensuring that all students have equivalent experiences. One mechanism developed to provide students with mock experiences are simulations incorporated into the didactic curriculum. Simulations may involve anything from a prepared scenario with actors to using simulation dummies. Active-learning simulations are beneficial to learning, and can even increase students' empathy for patients.[11] However, simulations typically require extensive planning and tend to be resource intensive, with mannequins being costly and scenario simulations requiring a high ratio of instructors to students.[12,13]

Despite these challenges, educators strive to provide students with the best learning experiences. One emerging technology that is showing promise in not only engaging the learner but also in overcoming current obstacles is VR. The purpose of this manuscript is to evaluate the past, present, and future of VR as a tool in pharmacy education.

The definition of VR has evolved over time, resulting in some confusion in the literature. The current definition of VR is understood as "an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one's actions partially determine what happens in the environment."[14] This definition can be applied to many different types of activities, but modern VR typically refers to experiences that take place while wearing head-mounted displays or headsets. The terms augmented reality (AR) and "mixed reality" (MR) are both essentially varying degrees of VR. Virtual reality can be defined as any immersive simulated reality, and most often refers to a "complete" virtual experience. Google Cardboard (Google LLC, Mountain View, CA), Google Daydream (Google LLC, Mountain View, CA), Oculus Rift (Facebook Technologies, LLC, Menlo Park, CA), and HTC Vive (HTC, Bellevue, WA) are headsets that are used primarily for VR.[15–17] Augmented reality and mixed reality are often confused and used interchangeably. While AR typically refers to a computer-generated overlay on the real world,[18] the overlay does not necessarily interact with the real world. Google Glass (Google LLC, Mountain View, CA) is an early example of AR.[19] Mixed reality involves a computer-generated overlay that interacts with the real world.[18] The Microsoft HoloLens (Microsoft, Redmond, WA) is a promising example of MR, although it is not yet widely available.[20] The subtle differences between VR, AR, and MR are summarized in Table 1. Virtual reality is far more advanced in its development than AR and MR, but all three have the potential to positively impact education. Types of VR, AR, and MR headsets and various accessories are listed in Table 2 and Table 3, respectively.