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+ / 24.11.2017

How Virtual Reality Is Revolutionising Healthcare

– Sol Rogers

While much has already been made of the impact virtual reality has had on entertainment and communication, the technical benefits of VR are potentially far more wide ranging and significant. Healthcare is one sector where virtual reality is already making inroads which could have measurable, life-changing consequences for both patients and medical staff alike.


Virtual Reality Surgical Training

The global augmented reality & virtual reality in healthcare market is expected to reach USD 5.1 billion by 2025 according to A report by Grand View Research, Inc. Universities such as Imperial College London have opened up their own centres to study its potential application further. While Imperial has begun looking into the use of virtual reality for patients, guiding them through the procedures they will be receiving in order to reduce stress levels and “demystify” potentially scary operations.

At its most basic level, this technology is now assisting trainee surgeons in learning their skills via a realistic, virtual reality game of Operation. Through the use of VR headsets and haptic gloves, key details of surgical practice such as bone resistance, as well as a virtual x-ray of the patient, are integrated into the programming. In 2016, 13,000 medical students and staff were able to watch the world’s first live-streamed VR surgery take place in London, which could lead to a whole new form of teaching for junior doctors. Away from the physical side of surgery, one company, MPathicVR, is also using virtual reality to assist medical students with breaking difficult news to patients.


VR In Pain Management And Recovery

The immersive nature of virtual reality has also found positive uses for patients recovering from surgery and illness. While this is still firmly in the research phase, virtual reality programming – in one example, a seemingly never-ending game in which the player throws balls at objects around them – has lead to a direct improvement in pain management. Considering the current state of the American opioid crisis, a rapid, wide-scale rollout of schemes like this would be of significant benefit to the healthcare system at large.

VR has also provided therapeutic benefits for patients with non-functioning limbs caused by strokes or amputations, for example. A Swiss company has pioneered a VR platform which uses the functioning limb to control a virtual representation of the missing one, which commentators have claimed “can kickstart the recovery of the non-functional limb’s capabilities.”


Likewise, VR has also proved itself vital in the treatment of phantom limb pain; Science Daily recently reported that this pain “can be relieved if the brain is tricked into thinking that the amputated limb is still attached.” Through a therapeutic VR games program, a residual limb (as it is known) is given electrical stimulation, which makes the user feel as if the missing limb is present and useable, reducing the “sensory conflict” brought on by feeling the presence of an amputated limb.

However, it’s not just medical VR experiences that can have a profound effect on patients confined to hospitals beds. Melbourne tech start-up Phoria, has been working with the Melbourne Zoo to create a 360 degree VR film that allows desperately sick children to experience exotic animal therapy from their hospital room. Similarly, elderly patients are being given VR headsets to try to alleviate the loneliness that can arise from prolonged hospital stays.


Aiding Psychological Distress

When virtual reality began its gradual ascent in popularity, much was made about the health impacts, particularly “cybersickness”, a condition brought on by excessive time spent in virtual reality worlds. However, it has been used in therapy, particularly for sufferers of anxiety disorders and PTSD, as far back as the nineties. This type of safe exposure therapy allows patients to confront the things which trigger their disorders, in the knowledge that they can escape at any time.

This application of clinical virtual reality has also extended to the treatment of dementia in the elderly. As trialled by Quantum Care, a British group of care homes, a series of twelve immersive VR experiences, primarily depicting interactive nature scenes, have been designed to improve mood and provide a sense of calm.

Similarly, researchers have had great success using VR to help children with autism cope with the stresses of everyday situations. A 2014 study used wall projections to provide virtual cognitive behavioural therapy for autistic children with specific phobias. Follow up studies showed long-term improvement, with four of the children overcoming their fears completely.

While the full extent to which VR can be used in healthcare is still in its early stages, the successes of these applications so far suggests that this technology can have a genuinely life-changing impact.

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