Information technology is slowly permeating to play a role in all spheres of life in order to improve and extend their possibilities. IT solutions can be used to optimize time-consuming tasks, helping users see what is missing in their current way of operating while also finding new, faster, more innovative ways to solve issues.
Healthcare is one of the sectors which has been slower to adopt IT solutions due to its complexity and dealing with sensitive information, but it is also one of the sectors that could benefit the most from ingenious uses of technology. A prime example of how modern healthcare systems can make use of innovations in tech to advance is by adopting virtual reality solutions for diagnostics, training, surgery, treatments, nursing and patient education purposes.
Widespread interest in virtual reality (VR) technology began in 2012 after the release of head mounted display (HMD) products such as Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift. Since then, VR products have made their way into various fields, being used as practical applications in both the consumer and business realms. Through the use of VR solutions, we have a new way to engage with information, presenting an exciting learning (and healing) tool in the healthcare sector.
Most applications of VR solutions in the healthcare space currently focus on three main areas:
providing new, more engaging ways to educate and train medical professionals;
creating innovative ways to treat patients with neuropsychological issues;
as a potential tool for phantom limb pain relief;
and, providing therapeutic experiences for people with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Let’s take a closer look at how these areas of healthcare are being advanced through the use of virtual reality.
One of the best ways to use virtual reality in the medical world has been through its practical application in education and training care providers. Doctors and nurses can use VR as a new method of learning and training that offers the closest thing to real “hands-on” experience.
Many operations in modern clinics and hospitals are carried out using various instruments and high tech tools. The skills of a masterful surgeon are directly related to their experience with managing these instruments inside the operating room. Sharpening coordination skills, proper workflow, and a coherence in their actions requires multiple forms of training and practice.
Simulators can provide a great way to teach and train surgeons, assisting nurses, and other medical professionals and VR offers the next level of education in this area. Virtual reality in surgery provides an opportunity to be fully immersed in a situation that is nearly identical to a real operation. The use of VR for teaching purposes has already been successfully implemented in many clinics around the world. For example, Stanford University has had a surgery simulator since 2002. The simulator even includes haptic technology to provide sensory (touch) feedback to the trainee during the simulation. Stanford’s endoscopic sinus surgery simulation even uses CT scans from real patients to create 3D models to practice on.
Emergency departments can also make use of VR as an apt training tool. As they say, “practice makes perfect”, and this is especially relevant for training emergency responders. Many lifesaving procedures and interventions are rarely performed in real life, but are critical to a patient’s survival.
Often, medical care providers have minutes or just seconds to act in order to save a patient’s life. That’s why it is extremely important for providers to keep their practical knowledge and skills up to date and trained effectively. Virtual reality tools allow providers to simulate situations that rarely occur in order to apply their knowledge gained through theory and keep their lifesaving skills sharp, even if they’re only needed once in awhile.
Another great use for virtual reality in medicine is found in educating patients. Patients oftentimes don’t really understand the procedures they will be undergoing which is problematic because they are required to give their consent for any interventions.
Treatments, rehabilitation, and other procedures are much more effective when the patient fully comprehends what they can expect. Virtual reality technology can help set appropriate expectations of various stages of a treatment plan. Patients can use VR to get a better understanding of what will happen to their body during and after a procedure, thus providing them with a more informed way of giving consent and managing their expectations of the recovery process.
Mary Spio is the CEO of Next Galaxy, a developer of innovative content solutions and consumer virtual reality technology. She believes that:
“Virtual Reality represents the highest form of learning, essentially because you are immersed in the task and actually doing it.”
Spio suggests that patient education is a great application for VR and is looking at other areas to apply the technology, including teaching new mothers what to expect during lactation. Learning about natural body functions and processes in an interactive and demonstrative way will help reduce anxiety, as well as set and manage expectations accordingly. It will also help care providers ensure that their patients understand what procedures they are agreeing to, reducing the risk of legal action.
Advantages of virtual reality in healthcare also present new opportunities when it comes to treating neuropsychological conditions in which the brain and nervous system influence a patient’s cognition and behaviors. Virtual reality tools have been applied in various ways in this area.
It’s important for people with phobias to develop coping strategies as part of their recovery and the opportunity to practice those strategies in a safe environment, with the use of VR healthcare, is a great way to advance that recovery process. Clinics have already begun to successfully apply VR to create environments that exacerbate a patient’s condition in a safe, controlled way. Therapy sessions can easily be stopped or repeated, depending on the patient’s progress. By slowly exposing them to more situations that allow them to practice their coping mechanisms, patients increase the chances of effectively managing their condition when faced with their phobia in real life.
The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies has applied virtual reality to treat PTSD since 1997, using Georgia Tech’s “Virtual Vietnam” simulations. Through controlled exposure therapy, war veterans relive traumatic situations or events in a safe environment. This helps them deal with their trauma and the feelings that arise as a result in a healthy manner, without the destructive consequences that untreated PTSD often has for themselves and the people around them.
For burn victims, for example, virtual reality can serve as a tool for distraction therapy. Pain impacts the senses through the pathways in the brain and nerves. VR video games can be used to distract a patient, alleviating some of the experience of pain during tasks that can be excruciating like wound care or physical therapy. The University of Washington’s game, SnowWorld, involves throwing snowballs at penguins while listening to Paul Simon and is immersive VR used specifically for pain control.
Using a virtual plane to test neuropsychological impairments can help improve the accuracy of patient results. Current testing is done in controlled settings with specific parameters, which often does not represent real-life situations that patients encounter every day. By making use of VR to more closely portray real-life circumstances during an assessment, care providers have a more exact understanding of a patient’s behavior and overall condition.
CyberPsychology & and Behavior published “A Simulated Reality Scenario Compared with the Computerized Wisconsin Card Sorting Test: An Analysis of Preliminary Results” in 2004. The paper discussed virtual reality experiences in use that not only assess impairments, but also help in planning the treatment. "The authors concluded that their [VR] test measures the same cognitive functions as the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) and may prove to be more ecologically valid," – they wrote.
Autism is medically seen as decreased activity in areas of the brain tied to understanding social interactions. Adaptive treatment aims to impact these areas as a main goal and includes using VR to create environments for patients in which they can practice their social behavior. Teaching effective communication skills in different virtual situations (like a virtual job interview, a virtual date, and more) helps young adults with autism practice and better understand socially appropriate behaviors.
Many patients that have undergone amputation continue to report painful sensations in the limb, known as phantom limb pain (PLP), that they’ve lost, even if they are aware it is no longer there. Due to the complexity surrounding how and why the painful sensations continue to be experienced by the patient, it is difficult to treat this type of pain using painkillers or other common pain relievers.
Using VR to create a three-dimensional world in which the phantom limb is still able to be manipulated, patients can resolve some of the psychological effects of phantom limb pain, helping them manage this condition.
Virtual reality in medical field has been used to help people with disabilities or with chronic conditions experience things they may not be able to experience otherwise. They have helped paralyzed people learn to walk again and helped terminally ill cancer patients experience their bucket-list wishes. Similarly, the Fove headset has been used to help children with physical disabilities play the piano by tracking eye movement in an app the company created called “Eye Play the Piano”. And these are just a few examples of the therapeutic uses that VR technology can have.
While this application of VR might not constitute as treatment for these conditions or illnesses, they are definitely encouraging new approaches to understanding and improving the quality of life for people affected by them.
VR software focused on the healthcare sector is an undoubtedly lucrative path of development. The sector is still young and innovations through further research and tech advancement is inevitable.
SteelKiwi’s experience with creating medical applications and our deep interest in projects related to the healthcare field makes us a reliable technical partner when considering entering the VR tech sector. If you have questions about entering the market or you need help to develop a virtual reality app for healthcare, please contact us for more information!