Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Virtual Reality. The term has been a buzzword for years, but in 2017 this rapidly developing technology has gone from strength to strength, with gamers slipping on their headsets and entering a virtual world. In fact, it’s estimated that over one billion people will regularly access VR and AR content by 2020.

Virtual Reality. The term has been a buzzword for years, but in 2017 this rapidly developing technology has gone from strength to strength, with gamers slipping on their headsets and entering a virtual world. In fact, it’s estimated that over one billion people will regularly access VR and AR content by 2020.

VR isn’t just a matter of home entertainment, though. From pain management to physician training, the healthcare industry is utilising virtual reality to increase awareness, improve knowledge, and help patients help themselves.

Pain Management

For some patients, pain is an inevitable reality. But what about a synthesised reality? Parts of the brain that process pain, such as the somatosensory cortex, are less active when immersed in a virtual environment, as other cortices are more acutely activated.

While VR games are essentially a distraction technique during medical procedures, they’ve got good stats behind them: in an early study, researchers found 20 minutes engaged in virtual reality activities reduced pain by 24% on average, using patient reports on a 0-10 scale.

Companies such as AppliedVR are working to build a library of virtual reality content for assistance with pain and anxiety around medical procedures. This technology could revolutionise the way we medicate patients before, during and after surgery, cutting out risky side-effects of medication and encouraging the brain to naturally focus away from pain.

Physical therapy

Virtual reality systems are all about full physical immersion, meaning that movements are tracked and fed back to users via visual and sensory stimuli in the virtual world. This allows systems to gamify standardised physical therapy exercises, helping patients recovering from injury or illness to improve their physical skills independently.

Replacing or augmenting traditional physical therapy sessions with virtual reality experiences allows healthcare providers to personalise patients’ progress - for example, patients who feel anxious and unstable when walking can practice in a virtual environment where their pace feels much slower than it actually is.

Furthermore, virtual rehabilitation allows patients to practice in their own homes at their own pace, with easy ways to monitor their recovery. This reduces the burden on healthcare workers and physical therapists, so they can focus their energies on patients who are just starting out with physical therapy.

Cognitive rehabilitation

Rehabilitation doesn’t stop with physical movement. Patients who have suffered strokes or brain injuries from trauma often find their return to daily living and work compromised by impaired cognitive function. This affects patients’ motivation to fully participate in rehabilitation programmes.

In a virtual environment, patients can practice everyday interactions such as shopping, reinforcing old links and forging new ones. The technology can be targeted to individual pace and preferences, increasing the complexity of situations as cognitive function improves. This takes away the potential embarrassment of practicing these interactions in real-world scenarios and allows doctors to observe and assess each situation, giving deeper insight into areas of memory loss or cognitive dysfunction.

Healthcare staff training

One of the most widely talked about applications for VR in the healthcare industry is VR as a training tool. From teaching the human anatomy to medical students to practising delicate surgical procedures, VR offers a realistic and risk-free teaching method with instant, measurable feedback.

This reduces costs, time and resources, allowing for experts who would otherwise be teaching to focus on more patient-centric tasks.

By reducing the risk of adverse events and increasing trainees’ confidence, VR is truly paving the way for the next generation of medical professionals.

Discover how connected hospitals are changing the way we provide healthcare and discuss the latest in patient-centric tech with our mdtechnologies experts.