How Virtual Reality is Changing Healthcare

Kristen Campbell
September 29, 2020

Taking stock of your medical practice in this day and age should involve keeping up to date with the latest innovations in the healthcare field – and for Canadian doctors in the era of a global pandemic, none of these areas is as interesting as virtual reality.

Virtual reality is highly prevalent in a number of fields – it’s involved in car simulations for drivers, used to expand the world of video games, assist in education, sports, and business. In medicine especially, virtual reality offers some changes that could not only help shape the future trajectory of patient care, but offer novel ways to treat the medical system’s stickiest problems. From solutions for chronic pain management to new ways to accomodate an aging population, virtual reality is here to stay. So where do you fit in? Here are some facts about how virtual reality is changing healthcare as we know it – and the best ways to fit them into your patients treatments.

Virtual Reality Wasn’t Always Accessible

The first virtual reality tools were large, clunky, and not intuitive. It wasn’t until 2012, when Oculus designed the first PC-compatible VR software, that the field really started to take off. Now those seeking a virtual experience can get lightweight, easy to wear headsets that fit over prescription glasses for prices ranging from $70 for base models to several hundred for pricier options. This more widespread use of virtual reality has translated into staggering advances in virtual care – VR tools can be used in everything from medical school education to surgical procedures, with the only limit being your imagination. It also means the average physician can incorporate some of these tools into their practice at a relatively low cost.

 

Virtual Reality Can Be Great for Seniors

While senior populations have typically been the slowest to catch on to digital trends and usage patterns – owing at least partially to their status as ‘digital immigrants’ who grew up before the advent of modern technology – they are actually some of the patients who can most benefit from how virtual reality is changing healthcare. 

Seniors in assisted living facilities, long term care centres, or other situations where they struggle with isolation or limited mobility, can benefit from the escape reality VR offers. If it sounds far fetched to think of your elderly patients walking around playing virtual golf, consider the research emerging in the field: in 2015, a group of MIT grad students launched Rendever, a program aimed at integrating virtual reality into assisted living facilities in America. Residents are given VR headsets and tablets from staff in order to create immersive virtual experiences that range from travelling around the world to flying fighter planes. And it’s more than just fun – Rendever’s VR tools have been shown to help residents with dementia and other types of cognitive and physical impairment stimulate emotions and recall memories from their past. 

If you work with seniors in a hospital setting, specialize in senior care, or provide treatment for cognitive impairment, Alzheimers, or dementia, it might be worth looking into incorporating these tools into your practice. A nice benefit of using VR in this way is programs like Rendever can get incorporated seamlessly into existing treatment options – eliminating the need to work around any barriers to virtual care.



Virtual Reality Can Help Improve Care for Mental Health Conditions

Thanks to its ability to help patients get out of real life and escape into vast possibilities for virtual scenarios, one of the most prevalent areas where virtual reality is changing healthcare is the field of mental health. From using VR as an escape for patients with anxiety and depression to helping model behaviours in complex conditions like schizophrenia or autism to helping survivors of PTSD or sexual assault, the options available in a virtual setting are quite literally infinite – and so there are also infinite ways for these options to be used. Using virtual reality tools to jog memory and ward off cognitive impairment can go beyond the use of senior populations and into everyday care – and with a relatively small price tag, some specializations – such as pediatricians or psychiatrists – could incorporate these virtual scenarios into their practice without too much investment or training.

 

Virtual Reality Can Help with Pain Management

Another area of interest for physicians interested in how virtual reality is changing healthcare is the area of pain. While it may sound surprising, it’s actually one of the areas of medical VR with the most testing – researchers at Cedars Sinai have shown over the past few years that VR tools can be used to reduce patient pain – from all sources – by as much as a quarter. Pain studies using VR have been going on for almost two decades, with drastic effects on everyone from burn victims to study volunteers, and researchers say results can come around in as little as twenty minutes. 

Acute pain is an interesting use of VR for healthcare, but many physicians see it more broadly – virtual reality can teach patients tools, such as meditation, that they can apply in their day to day lives. Patients are more likely to follow through on using and understanding these tools if the teaching comes to them from a virtual setting. 

There’s never been a better time to use VR for pain management either. With doctors scrambling to find alternatives to a global opioid crisis and VR tools cheaper and easier to access than ever, many physicians in Canada could find it useful to incorporate VR into their practice.

 

Virtual Reality Can Assist in Education

Education is one of the most obvious ways that physicians can use virtual reality – but it might be surprising to know just how much VR is changing the field. One of the ways this is being done is through the use of virtual reality devices to rehearse or view surgical procedures. As the Harvard Business Review points out, one of the biggest disparities in the surgical field is the difference between the level of preparedness some surgeons have coming into their residencies and fellowships. 

This is not necessarily due to the quality of the medical school or residency they attended, but more to do with the amount of practice hours they receive. These differences are innate in the surgical profession – after all, how many patients will come in with the same condition? Is every supervising surgeon going to allow students to assist in the procedure? One of the ways virtual reality is changing healthcare for surgeons is allowing more students to view these procedures as part of their training – smoothing out some of the gaps in surgical knowledge caused by different levels of practice.

 

Virtual Reality Can Be Great for Rehabilitation

If sports medicine or physical rehabilitation is a component of your medical practice, you might already know about the advancements that virtual reality has made in the field. Everything from helping reactivate motor planning, learning, and execution skills through tailored tasks to recuperating stroke victims or helping to alleviate some symptoms of cerebral palsy can be aided by virtual reality. Like in pain management, the real benefit of these tools is the teaching and learning component. Getting the patient’s mind working in harmony with their body through VR activities is a way of teaching skills in a novel way – one that motivates them to keep practicing.

Conclusion 

With a virtually infinite number of uses and new advances happening every day, there are no limits to how virtual reality is changing healthcare. And since physicians can now incorporate these tools into their practice at a low cost and with relatively little training, more and more practices will have the option to use VR in coming years. So what are you waiting for? Bringing virtual reality into your practice is a great way to not only stay on top of one of the fastest moving trends in healthcare, but also to help your patients look forward to going to the doctor!

 

 

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