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Virtual reality (VR) suffered a false start about 20 years ago, when the graphics weren’t realistic enough and nobody knew quite what to do with the technology, except enhance video games.

There remains something of the bizarre about strapping a Samsung Galaxy to your face and wandering about in a world that doesn’t exist, though – in recent times – the graphical realism and the applications themselves have come on in leaps and bounds. Today, besides gaming and entertainment, the big hope for VR has been around digital healthcare.

VR in healthcare is attracting a lot of attention because it promises to:

  • Improve patient outcomes in general, and the patient experience in particular
  • Support medical professionals to perform more accurately and confidently
  • Optimise the efficiency of healthcare services
  • Create new ways of diagnosing and treating some medical conditions

Below are just a few examples of the VR healthcare applications emerging today, the value they create at the moment and – potentially – in the future.

Surgical training

Using VR, classrooms full of trainee doctors learn how to perform operations on virtual patients without accidentally killing anyone. On the face of it, this has less value than you might think, because present surgical training techniques are already safe and successful. However, VR is already saving lives when used in highly complex procedures on individual patients. By practicing on an exact representation of a specific patient (using MRI scan data), the surgeon can hone their approach and cut out errors.

VR helps train medical professionals in other ways too. We Are Alfred is a rich, immersive experience that gives doctors an appreciation of seeing the world through the perspective of a 74 year-old man with hearing and sight loss – helping them deliver better care.

Escapism for the bed-bound

Patients who are too immobile or sick to visit the African savannah or Times Square can be there in an instant with VR. Again, this is arguably of limited extra value compared to watching a movie or reading an engrossing novel. But look at the evidence and it’s clear that reducing the stress-response of patients about to undergo surgery dramatically improves their outcomes, quickens rehab times and reduces complications. VisitU is a VR app designed to help children, who’ve been admitted to the strange, distressing surrounds of a hospital, to relax and feel like they’re at home. The other proven way of reducing stress-response is through better patient education. VR offers solutions here also, walking patients through their procedures for example (as in the surgical training example, but with less blood and gore).

Pain relief

Pain relief? Whoa – now that’s a big jump for VR, right? Into a role that pharmaceuticals normally perform… But it’s true, and it’s getting good results in real-life clinical settings. Scientists from the University of Washington have used the latest understanding of how pain works to co-develop a VR experience called SnowWorld, which ‘distracts’ burns patients from the pain of undergoing routine wound care. Another interesting application, developed in Sweden, uses augmented reality (a kind of VR that applies/augments virtual elements onto a live video experience) to help amputees suffering with phantom limb pain. Researchers used the technology to optimise the more rudimentary ‘mirror therapy’ developed in the 1990s to offer patients more effective pain relief.

Social perception for the mentally ill

Another big jump perhaps, but this subset of VR applications is designed to help mental health patients cope with real-life situations through exposure to virtual ones. Exposure therapy itself is nothing new, but few approaches can match VR for adding the necessary realism of spatial depth and interactivity with other ‘virtual’ persons. One example is the therapy designed at Oxford University for patients with severe paranoia. Using the setting of a crowded tube train, this VR experience places patients in a series of increasingly challenging scenarios, building their confidence and equipping them to participate in everyday life. Another example concerns people with autism, a condition that desensitises social awareness to such an extent that it can create barriers to work and relationships. University of Texas professors constructed VR-driven job interviews and blind dates incorporating avatars that exhibit very subtle social cues, in order to coach young autistic adults. Only by using VR were they able to construct a realistic, controlled, immersive experience while simultaneously brain-scanning each patient non-obtrusively. The results showed a marked increase in the development of social cognition.

Digital healthcare is driven by good data, which is why VR in healthcare has such strong potential.

It’s clear that VR has captured the imagination of developers to go beyond the obvious but, from a software development perspective, it’s just another data source. It’s the ability to integrate VR ‘therapies’ and other processes with the patient’s medical history and real-time health data, that enhances the value of that patient’s care. It should also contribute significantly to the overall datasets used in future clinical research projects. These will require clarity from the outset; providing the platform for heavy-duty number crunching and analytics, undertaken in a secure and compliant fashion.