Virtual reality (VR) has traditionally been associated with gaming, however the development of VR solutions for healthcare applications is accelerating rapidly. Technologies such as the Oculus Rift and Oculus Go headsets are freely available – at a price – and tech giants such as Google and Apple are working hard on the next generation of immersive technology. HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, and Sony Playstation VR are other available options on the market. With the ability to create truly immersive experiences that transport users to an entirely new environment, VR is truly a game changer in the field of medicine.
The Virtual Medicine Conference held in Los Angeles in March this year offered some wonderful insights into the use of VR in medicine. Attendees were able to take a virtual journey through the human heart, learn more about VR pain therapies, find out how virtual reality can educate patients and medics, and learn about the benefits of VR in mental health. Let’s take a look at each of these areas in more detail.
VR Training & Education
Some aspects of medicine are difficult to teach without risk to the patient. A surgeon has to operate on patients to learn vital skills. Virtual reality can eliminate some of the risks by providing a realistic training environment for doctors to practice their procedures. Trainee doctors have been using VR technology for a while now and it’s already been proven to be a powerful instructional tool. It’s a cheaper and more effective way to train people, and with the price of VR headsets falling by the day, there is a quiet revolution taking place in med schools across the US and beyond. VR technology can also be used to educate patients about forthcoming medical procedures. Healthcare organizations are using VR to give patients a preview of hospitals, staff, and operating rooms, so they know what to expect when they come in for their procedure. It is proving to be a great way to relieve anxiety.
One example, HealthVoyager, provides a HIPAA-compliant healthcare VR platform to help patients. The platform offers a 3D visual tour of what is happening inside their bodies; it is especially effective for children.
VR and Mental Health
Virtual Reality is being used to help desensitize patients suffering from PTSD and social phobia. It also has therapeutic value when treating patients suffering from anxiety and depression. VR can be used for both prevention of and intervention during mental health episodes, providing greater access and privacy than ever before.
VR Pain Relief
Chronic pain is very difficult to deal with. Most patients are prescribed high dose opiates, but this causes more problems. Experiments with immersive VR technology have shown that VR therapy is an effective pain management tool, which doctors call “immersive distraction”.
Using it is simple. When a patient suffering from chronic pain puts on a VR headset, he or she is transported to a virtual world. Because the brain is so immersed in the virtual world, pain signals are suppressed and the patient’s perception of his or her pain is reduced. This effect continues even after the VR headset is removed.
More clinical trials are needed, but it’s clear that virtual reality technology has an important role to play in the treatment of chronic pain. There is even hope that VR could help to reverse the opioid epidemic in the United States.
Design, Test, Learn, Iterate
Of all the advances impacting healthcare, VR is expected to deliver a range of proven, accessible, and transformative solutions that can improve both physical as well as mental health. Dozens of companies around the world are racing to develop new solutions that use virtual reality, augmented reality or mixed reality to replace and transform user experiences in healthcare. Early studies show positive results, and the growing body of evidence is creating the momentum needed to drive widespread clinical adoption.
Want to hear more?
Tune in to episode 50 to hear how these five doctors are using VR/AR/MxR to solve real challenges and lay the foundation for what’s coming next.