Virtual Reality started its fascinating take-over of healthcare for the greatest pleasure of patients and doctors alike. Here are five great examples of medical VR transforming patient lives and how doctors work.
Did you know that it is possible to swim with whales in the ocean while lying in a hospital bed? Have you imagined experiencing your 74th birthday as a 20-something? Perhaps follow a risky surgery from your couch?
Medical VR is an area with fascinating possibilities. It has not just moved the imagination of science-fiction fans, but also that of clinical researchers and real-life medical practitioners. Although the field is relatively new, there are increasingly great examples of VR having a positive effect on patients’ lives and physicians’ work.
1) Watching operations as if you wielded the scalpel
Have you ever wondered what is going on in an operating room? What those doctors and nurses dressed in blue or green with masks on their heads are doing?
Since Dr. Shafi Ahmed conducted the first VR surgery in 2016 which could be viewed by anyone online in real time, VR now allows more than just passively seeing an operation from the point of view of the surgeon. The technology is now being used to actually train aspiring surgeons and for surgeons to practice operations.
Companies like Osso VR and ImmersiveTouch offer virtual reality solutions to train surgeons and/or to hone their skills, and these have been proven to be better than traditional training methods. In fact, an important study from Harvard Business Review showed that VR-trained surgeons had a 230% boost in their overall performance compared to their traditionally trained counterparts. The former were also faster and more accurate in performing surgical procedures as well.
Virtual reality could elevate the teaching and learning experience in medicine to a whole new level. Traditionally, only a few students can peek over the shoulder of the surgeon during an operation and it is challenging to learn the tricks of the trade via this method.
With a virtual reality camera, surgeons can stream operations globally and allow medical students to actually be there in the OR using their VR goggles. An early example was when medical students at Case Western University were taught about the human anatomy with the help of such devices as the HoloLens about the human anatomy, cadaver-free (albeit using the slightly different Mixed Reality technology). But today there are so many great examples of using VR (and/or AR, XR, etc) in medical training.
VR holds great promise in revolutionising medical education and training, and such examples will soon become the norm.
2) Relaxing patients with Medical VR
Have you, as a patient, ever had the feeling that time just stops in the hospital, there is nothing to do, you miss your family and friends and you are constantly worried about your condition? Anxiety while in hospital, the constant worry about an upcoming procedure, and the actual pain that one can suffer during or after a procedure are understandably taxing on anyone. VR presents itself as an enticing solution to help patients relax and suffer to a lesser extent in such situations.
In a pilot study, patients undergoing surgery at St George’s Hospital in London had the option to use a VR headset prior to and during their operation to view calming landscapes during the procedure. 100% of the participants reported that their overall hospital experience was improved by wearing the headset, while 94% said they felt more relaxed. Furthermore, 80% said they felt less pain after wearing the headset and 73% reported feeling less anxious.
VR is also being used to help women get through labor pain, or what is known to be one of the most severe pains, and the reason for pregnant women to opt for epidurals. VR is a viable alternative for those who would like to give birth naturally but without the worry of having a painful experience.
Earlier studies with patients suffering from gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurological and post-surgical pain have shown a decline in their pain levels when using VR to distract them from painful stimuli.
3) Real conferences with virtual reality for an enhanced experience
You’ve probably experienced it and I sure can tell you about it, medical and healthcare conferences can be very tedious. What with the blatant lack of audience engagement, uninteresting presentation visuals and the all-too-common bullet points, these conferences could very much do with a tech overhaul. A few years ago I collected 5 ways in which technology can improve medical conferences and VR weighs in as well.
Visualising a presenter and their audience with VR headsets strapped to their faces might be an entertaining thought, but such a scene is already a reality. Dr. Brennan Spiegel, a strong advocate of VR in medicine, gave an entire MedEd lecture in VR in 2017! He has also been using this technology in his presentations at the annual Virtual Medicine conference. Quite sad that despite all the years that passed we don’t see VR (or other extended realities) becoming much more common mediums of conferences.
With the interactive possibilities that VR offers like 3D visualization and gamification, audience engagement and the overall quality of the conference would skyrocket.
4) Helping physicians experience life as the elderly
Have you ever wondered what it feels like to grow old? How would it feel to not be able to lift your hand above your head? How would it feel like when you’ve lost one of your fingers, or recovered from a heart attack? Experiencing such conditions through VR can help medical students and young physicians develop one of the must-have abilities of a doctor: empathy.
The University of New England tested this theory by incorporating age-related conditions simulations via VR in the medical school curriculum. The participating students were found to better understand such conditions and saw an increase in their empathy for the elderly.
Another university that explored the potential of VR in medical education is the University of Michigan. Students at this university used the MPathic-VR app to train their communication skills with a virtual human, which proved to be very helpful when delivering difficult news.
An interesting recent venture: the British Royal Society of Medicine offers a fascinating module to medical students and practicing healthcare professionals. It is a VR training program to improve communication with patients, especially in challenging situations. The AI-enhanced simulation software helps doctors improve their ability to identify anger signals, recognise how different responses can diffuse or exacerbate anger, remain calm in hostile situations, and move the situation forward with empathy.
5) Speeding up recovery in physical therapy
For patients who survived a stroke or traumatic brain injury, time is of the essence. The earlier they start rehabilitation, the better chances they have for successfully regaining lost functions.
Bringing a gamified approach to physical therapy for such patients is Neuro Rehab VR. Collaborating with physicians and therapists, the company develops VR training exercises with machine learning so as to tailor each exercise to patients’ therapeutic needs. The aim is to make physical therapy more enjoyable so as to increase patient engagement.
Such methods have been proven to be indeed effective. In a study published in 2019, researchers found that after VR therapy, children with cerebral palsy experienced a significant improvement in their mobility. The authors of this study further called for adding this method to conventional rehabilitation techniques so as to improve outcomes.
Above are only some of the many examples of how VR is changing the healthcare experience for both patients and medical professionals. As the technology gets more affordable, it will be more and more widely adopted while more immersive technologies will come to the forefront. For instance, the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap can offer more interactive experiences with their mixed-reality headsets, but these devices are fairly new and expensive.
On the other hand, VR headsets are now as cheap as $10. However, in order for the technology to be more widely adopted in the healthcare setting, attitudes need to be changed. And for that to happen, physicians and patients need to be open to the technology. Once this is achieved, I am confident that VR will make healthcare more pleasant.
+1 The Metaverse, the distant promise using VR
Discussing this topic we can’t leave the Metaverse unmentioned. After all, it uses virtual reality, and for a while – right before generative AI stole all the spotlight – it seemed like many major tech players were betting heavily that it would be the next iteration of the internet where we would work and play alike. Facebook even rebranded itself to Meta during this craze.
We obviously wondered what healthcare implications could stem from the metaverse hype and dedicated a detailed analysis to the topic.
The concept of the metaverse differs from “regular” VR. Instead of using a headset only for therapy, one would meet their therapist through the device as a digital avatar; have their consultation held in a virtual office; and can even head to a virtual pharmacy to order their prescription medicine (or VR app). Following that, they can meet up with fellow patient communities to share, in their avatar form, their treatment progress; and discuss new developments pertinent to their ailments. Theoretically, of course.
As enticing as the prospect of extending healthcare to the metaverse sounds, we must consider its feasibility. The sheer volume of personal health data that will be involved represents a security and privacy concern. Given how healthcare and electronic health systems have a notorious legacy of interoperability issues, thinking that the metaverse will take those woes away might be a pipedream.
On top of that comes practical issues with access to and handling VR headsets that pose as enablers of the metaverse. There are some more-or-less affordable ways to get quality VR content. But even a couple hundred dollars might be a barrier. And those who adopt might encounter other hurdles with setting up the device; or simply having a 500g load strapped to one’s forehead might not be totally comfortable for extended periods of time.
It’s so much easier to communicate with people through phones and/or social media sites that envisioning all this happening in the metaverse seems like a far-fetched sci-fi idea. So all in all, we don’t see it having feasible healthcare applications for the near future.
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