How Virtual Reality is Changing Health Care

 *This article was published in contribution to the new frontier of Intelligent Reality (IR). Click here to learn more about the 2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR).


Virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality all have a role to play in health care, but it might not be quite what you expect. Medical virtual reality is often associated with complex applications, such as virtual surgical training for a medical student. In truth, virtual reality and augmented reality in health care falls into two broad categories: practitioner facing and patient facing. Practitioner-facing medical VR can be used by a broad range of healthcare professionals, not just surgeons. In contrast, patient facing VR technology is designed for use by patients receiving healthcare.

There are many opportunities within the healthcare industry, and new ideas are continually evolving.


How virtual reality is currently being used in the health-care industry

For a medical professional, probably the most common application area for augmented reality and virtual reality is training and simulation. Virtual reality technology can be used to simulate a range of complex medical situations, allowing everyone from a medical student to a highly qualified surgeon to learn new skills and experience different patient scenarios. Sooner or later, every medical professional has to work with a real patient, but virtual reality and augmented reality can offer an unlimited amount of preparative training.

Within the healthcare industry, it’s not just doctors who interact with patients, and a virtual reality simulation doesn’t have to focus on surgical procedures. Many other healthcare workers, from nurses to orderlies to administrators can benefit from virtual training in different scenarios, such responding to natural disasters, quarantine procedures, complex logistics, or even just a virtual walkthrough of a hospital layout.

Unlike a physical medical training scenario, once a VR healthcare app has been created it costs little or nothing to repeat the training. Once the virtual environment has been created, a practitioner can reset and re-use the simulation as often as they like. Better training leads to fewer errors, more efficient procedures, and better patient outcomes.

But augmented reality and virtual reality both have applications that target patients directly. For example, VR technology has been successfully used to entertain and distract patients. Virtual tour applications allow patients to virtually leave their beds and explore more interesting surroundings. This becomes particularly powerful for patients who otherwise could not leave their care facility, either due to a physical or cognitive impairment.

Various studies have shown that VR experiences can help reduce patient pain. They can also be used during therapy. Numerous studies have explored the use of virtual reality and augmented reality for exposure therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Patients can be exposed to a wide range of scenarios in a safe and controlled manner, and as with other forms of VR simulation, the cost to repeat a virtual experience is far lower than replicating a real one. 

The VR market has a long history of interaction with the healthcare industry, but it is only recently that VR, AR and XR solutions are becoming mature and affordable enough to really start solving the needs of the healthcare market.


Ways in which virtual reality enhances health care

Virtual reality and augmented reality have been shown to be powerful tools for education, training, and the communication of complex ideas. As a field, healthcare is incredibly complex and challenging to navigate for healthcare workers and patients. It’s also a field that generates enormous, and growing, amounts of data. Any tool that can help convey complex information effectively will clearly benefit the healthcare industry. A VR simulation could be used to present a newly developed procedure, treatment, or device to a medical professional. More general VR training could help healthcare workers understand hospital procedures. Virtual reality could be used to explore new facilities before a healthcare worker starts working at a new location. Augmented reality could be used to help a new worker navigate a location once they have arrived.

Similarly, there are a wide range of potential patient benefits from virtual reality and augmented reality. As noted previously, virtual reality has shown considerable promise in the treatment of mental health issues. But outside of direct treatment, there are many other uses. Patients could use a medical VR application to become familiar with a procedure they are about to experience, potentially reducing patient concern and pre-operative stress. They could also explore the healthcare facility they will be visiting before they arrive. Virtual reality and augmented reality can be used to enhance post-operative care, both by helping to reduce pain and by ensuring the patient understands any post-operative actions or care procedures they must follow. Medical virtual reality and augmented reality both have tremendous potential to provide home and family caregivers a better understanding of how to care for a patient. Many opportunities exist, from an augmented reality application that helps family members navigate a health care facility, to an app that explains how to provide post-operative care.

Another growing area, driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, is telehealth. Virtual reality and augmented reality can be used to enhance the telehealth experience. For example, a VR telehealth app could create a welcoming virtual space where doctor and patient can meet. Such social VR applications have been shown to improve both empathy and intimacy in comparison to video calls. Telehealth is increasingly important in improving accessibility, especially in emerging economies where medical specialists may be in short supply.   

Using virtual reality and augmented reality for training, and to deliver complex information, can improve the level of care patients receive, while reducing costs and increasing efficiency. Lower costs and better outcomes make health care more more accessible for all.


Implementing virtual reality in a health-care environment

The first step in the broader adoption of virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality in health care facilities is simply awareness. While many new VR, MR and AR applications have been created, only a small number have been rigorously reviewed by medical professionals.  Relatively few medical professionals, health scholars and workers in the healthcare sector are thoroughly familiar with VR technology and related areas. Only a small number have any experience with a VR device, and most likely that occurred outside the healthcare environment.

To address this lack of awareness, industry stakeholders should take action. From device manufacturers, to standards bodies to platform owners, all should participate to drive awareness within the healthcare industry.

One starting point could be VR therapy, especially applications for pain management and exposure therapy. These applications have shown promise and have undergone some review by medical professionals. This type of therapeutic VR can be deployed relatively inexpensively, and would generate quick results. For example, there are a variety of common phobias and anxieties that respond well to exposure therapy. A VR solution could be designed that incorporates a library of the most common, allowing a single application and VR device to be used to treat a range of patients. 

Another application area that could generate quick and positive results is telehealth. But there are certainly a wide range of other practices and procedures that would benefit from the deployment of virtual reality or augmented reality applications. 


Future of virtual reality in health care


As virtual reality and augmented reality become ever more mainstream, and the virtual reality market becomes more mature, it seems inevitable that more and more applications will be found in healthcare. Few sectors are as interdisciplinary, complex, and rapidly evolving as health care. As any medical professional knows, knowledge, procedures and best practices are continually being updated, and all of that information has to be conveyed effectively to a very broad audience. That audience can range from a highly experienced neurosurgeon, to a skilled nurse, to a medically untrained patient or family member.

Digital Transformation was already taking hold in the health care sector before COVID-19, but the pandemic led many governments to reduce restrictions on telehealth, resulting in dramatic industry growth. While VR is not common in current telehealth solutions, the potential for growth is significant. A wide range of corporations are actively developing virtual reality and augmented reality solutions for healthcare. These include major companies such as Microsoft, Samsung and Siemens, as well as a large number of startups.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are not without their challenges. AR and VR headsets have plenty of room for improvement, and overall costs need to decrease. It is still challenging and expensive to develop VR programs. However, from therapeutic VR to medical education, the management of chronic pain to virtual care, the potential in healthcare is enormous and growing.


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