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Virtual Reality In Healthcare: Where’s The Innovation?

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Virtual reality is no longer just about video gaming; it holds promise as nothing short of revolutionary for just about every other industry, as well.

Since 2012, there has been an incredible explosion of interest and hype around mass market virtual reality (VR) thanks to head mounted display (HMD) products in development like the Oculus RiftHTC ViveGear VR and Google Cardboard.

The technology has advanced to the point where very high-quality VR experiences are possible at reasonable price points, and should be widely available to consumers within a year. There are a few industries that have been making use of VR technology for decades, and healthcare is one of them. The number of virtual reality-related research articles in the Pubmed database have increased over the last 10 years from 204 publications in 2004 to 720 publications in 2014.

However, there are still a fairly modest number of technology companies translating this research into practical VR applications. The field seems to be dominated by academic research and development, with some private industry collaboration. Most companies today are working on the same kinds of applications that clinicians have used since at least the early 1990s. There are probably many companies in early development and operating in stealth mode in this space, so it will be interesting to see what surfaces over the next 12 months.

The industry is poised for disruption, and a shift toward patient-centric and individualized healthcare is already underway. The history and current state of virtual reality in healthcare is outlined in detail in the following sections.

Virtual Simulations For Medical Training And Education

Virtual simulation technology has come a long way since the Sensorama Simulator from 1962. Over the past couple of decades, virtual reality and simulation technology has been implemented in healthcare training and education. Surgery simulators have been invaluable for physician training, and hospitals have paid large sums of money for this specialized equipment. We should be glad, as I can’t imagine anyone wanting to volunteer to be a surgeon’s “first.”

With visual simulation combined with force-feedback technology, the surgeon can experience both visual and physical feedback when practicing a procedure. Companies developing cutting-edge simulators include ImmersiveTouch and Medical Realities. It is unlikely that current HMD technology will be able to replace these sophisticated simulators, but the cost should come down with new sensor and display technologies now available.

Who wants to watch a digital version of themselves balloon up 50 pounds as they pound back soft drinks?

Beyond surgery, VR is a cost-effective, safe and engaging method for clinical education and training of healthcare professionals, such as nurses, physicians, surgeons, counselors, dentists, paramedics and even patients. Practitioners can receive training on procedures, techniques, equipment and patient interactions in a far more immersive and realistic environment than using traditional videos and paperwork.

Training in VR allows physicians a risk-free environment to practice life-saving procedures, especially ones that are not commonly performed. Next Galaxy and VR HealthNet are joining forces to create VR training solutions targeted at healthcare professionals. zSpace is another company developing medical-education apps. A comprehensive publication of the benefits of VR training can be found here.

Virtual Reality In Clinical Healthcare Settings

For at least 20 years, VR simulations have been used to treat patients with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe pain in burn victims and phobias or fears. VR has been used since at least 1997 to treat soldiers with PTSDBravemind is a virtual reality exposure therapy program offered by Virtually Better that helps clinicians expose their patients gradually to stimuli that trigger their traumatic stress responses, allowing them to help the patients recover.

The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies is developing prototypes and conducting research in many areas of medical virtual reality. SnowWorld, developed around 15 years ago by Hunter Hoffman at HITLab and Firsthand Technology, was an early VR environment to help distract burn patients from the pain associated with their treatments.

It is effective, but there is certainly more to be done in the field of pain management beyond chucking virtual snowballs at polygonal penguins. The founders of Firsthand have recently launched a new venture, DeepStream VR, to continue developing healthcare VR apps.

Virtual reality is a great way for physicians to augment exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy in the treatment of phobias. More recent companies working on exposure therapy include the Virtual Reality Medical Center and Psious. Apps for use by clinicians have been developed for treating fears such as flying, needles, heights, small spaces, crowds, public speaking, bugs and driving.

Some other areas of research and development in virtual reality for clinical healthcare include managing phantom limb pain, brain damage assessment and rehabilitation, social cognition training for young adults with autism, meditation for treatment of anxiety and depression, stroke rehabilitation, Alzheimer’s, management of ADHD in children, diagnostics and imaging visualizations.

Consumer And Outpatient Market

So what about the massive consumer market, about to explode from the advent of affordable VR HMDs? So far, most of the R&D for virtual reality in healthcare has focused on controlled clinical applications. Many such applications will require regulatory compliance and medical device status, but there is certainly a market for outpatient therapy, as well as general wellness solutions.

The industry is poised for disruption, and a shift toward patient-centric and individualized healthcare is already underway.

In addition to their clinical training modules, Next Galaxy will be releasing CPR and Heimlich maneuver software to public app stores for anyone to learn these life-saving techniques. Vivid Vision is a new company attempting to treat vision disorders such as amblyopia (lazy eye) and strabismus (crossed eyes) using VR headsets. The founder thought of the idea while attempting to treat his own vision disorder. For overall wellness, relaxationmeditation and stress relief there are already many applications available and in development.

In terms of preventative medicine, there are apps that strive to educate users on the effects of poor lifestyle choices, including smoking, overeating and consuming unhealthy foods. While somewhat controversial (who wants to watch a digital version of themselves balloon up 50 pounds as they pound back soft drinks?), mass education on preventative healthcare and lifestyle choices is critical in addressing issues such as the diabetes epidemic that puts massive financial strain on healthcare systems.

Personal fitness and exercise is a very large market segment ready to be disrupted by virtual reality. Fitness apps such as Runtastic help you perform a workout, while virtual cycling and bicycle hardware companies like WiderunActivetainment and VirZoom allow you to enjoy the “outdoors” in any weather condition. Icaros is a particularly fun-looking fitness gaming device that can simulate flying while you work on your six-pack.

Looking To The Future

Overall, virtual reality in healthcare is still in its early days in terms of breakthrough treatment paradigms and widespread clinical adoption and use. Innovators in this field will be increasingly scrutinized regarding evidence for clinical efficacy through properly designed and controlled human trials. In the (not too distant) future, things will get really interesting with the seamless integration and intersection of technologies like VR with artificial intelligence, deep learning, big data analytics, sensors, bio-feedback and increased computing power.

Smart, adaptive virtual simulations that learn as a patient interacts with it will revolutionize decentralized patient-focused care and fundamentally change the way healthcare is delivered.

Featured Image: Russell Werges