4 Ways VR Will Disrupt the Healthcare Industry

Ronald Monte | March 1, 2018

It’s often said that healthcare is decades behind the rest of the business world because of the piles of regulatory red tape faced by the industry. Thanks to new technological developments and a startup culture with a hunger for disruption, healthcare may be catching up. 

When one hears the phrase “virtual reality,” the first thought for many is an anti-social immersion into a video game, making it easy to shrug off. What is often overlooked is the massive practical applications of VR for businesses like film,  salesmanship, manufacturing, tourism, these are just a few spaces in which VR can have application. 

In this post, we’re going to look over some massive changes that VR is bringing to the healthcare world.

Surgical Training

Virtual reality will ensure the next generation of surgeons are properly trained before ever operating on a human. Training surgeons has historically been quite difficult without allowing them to operate on living organisms. Companies like Medical Realities, 3D Systems, and Osso VR aim to lower the cost and risk of training medical students, as well as democratize the access to medical expertise.

Source: 3D Systems 

In 2016, Dr. Shafi Ahmed performed a live surgery, removing a colon from a 70 year old patient with colon cancer. The procedure was filmed with a 360 camera, allowing viewers with consumer level VR headsets to immerse themselves the experience, and observe the nuances of a complex surgery. 

In regard to VR surgical training, Kevin McAlea of 3D Systems said “Pilots in the 1960s were scornful of the notion of flight simulators, today, pilots can’t go up unless they’ve trained for hours on simulators.

Physical Therapy

One of the biggest obstacles faced by physical therapists is patient non-compliance. Patients often get discouraged, or flat out refuse to perform certain exercises that are vital to their recovery. This is where the gamification, as enabled by VR, of physical therapy comes in to boost patient engagement and compliance. 

Companies like VRphysio aim to make patients enjoy their recovery. A piece of software designed for physical therapists , VRphysio creates games out of difficult and boring exercises that usually exhibit hesitation by the patient. It’s easy for a patient with a wrist problem to lose interest in doing subtle movements with their wrist repeatedly without any stimulation. 

VR physical therapy

VR physical therapy

 VRphysio records roughly four gigabytes of data during each session. It monitors biofeedback from the patient, allowing physical therapists to gleam insights from the analytics generated by the data, and better serve their patients. 

Exposure Therapy

Virtual reality is making significant inways in the way certain types of therapy are done, specifically in exposure therapy, which involves repeatedly exposing a patient to their phobias or trauma to desensitize them to it. VR bridges the gap between in vivo (direct, in-person) exposure, and imaginal (imaginary) exposure. 

Imagine a patient with a fear of driving, and how difficult and dangerous it would be to incrementally expose a patient who has panic attacks in cars, to their fear of driving. VR driving simulators serve as a stepping stone for patients, immersing them in a somewhat lifelike experience, and allowing their therapists to monitor their biofeedback to isolates points of anxiety in the driving process. 

Take for example, this driving simulator from the Virtual Reality Medical Center

We are already seeing success stories in VR exposure therapy, like University of South Carolilna’s Bravemind project, which aims to revolutionize the way PTSD is treated. The current status quo in PTSD therapy, as championed by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, has proved to have mixed results at best, and at worst, reducing quality of life for many former military personnel, the treatment forcing veterans to retell and relive their traumatic experiences time and time again.


Bravemind is an Iraq and Afghanistan military simulation made for the veterans of the respective wars. The project uses visual assets that are outdated by today’s graphical standards by design, to prevent the experience from becoming too vivid. “Your mind fills in the details for you,” Bravemind patient Chris Merkle told Bloomberg. 

Bravemind is currently used in over 100 military facilities and hospital.

In addition to PTSD and driving fears, virtual reality is being used in various exposure therapy treatments, including:

  • Generalized anxiety
  • Fear of flying
  • Fear of needles
  • Acrophobia
  • Claustrophobia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Relaxation
  • Fear of animals
  • Arachnophobia 

Making Exercise FUN

Roughly 40% of Americans suffer from obesity. This is due to many factors, but in part, to the fact that most exercise is boring! With the advent of consumer priced VR headsets, many are trying to make exercise fun. 

Many of the games currently on the market remind one of a more immersed Nintendo Wii experience, like BOXVR, the arcade style boxing simulation. 

One of the biggest trends facing the VR fitness space is gamified exercise bikes. Going beyond Wii-style virtual reality, the integration of an exercise machine makes it all the more real. VirZOOM is at the forefront of this trend, they sell their own VR integrated exercise bike, as well as VZ Sensor, a sensor that allows any old exercise to integrate with the VirZOOM ecosystem. 

The Verge did a demonstration of a VirZOOM integrated bike: 

Excersize Machine

Excersize Machine

Conclusion

It’s clear that the healthcare sector is on the precipice of massive change, and we have only seen a glimpse of it. Virtual reality, and other next-generation technology in healthcare is still in its infancy. 

The next step the healthcare sector needs to take is integration. Most of the new tech we’ve seen is yet to be applied on a wide scale in clinics. There is still the regulatory mountain to climb, as well as the science cliff, as not enough consensus on VR’s effectiveness in treatments has been formed. 

Regardless of how VR and healthcare intersect in the coming years, we know for sure that the way medical students are trained, how therapists interact with their patients, and even the way we exercise is going to change.

 


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