Virtual reality is rapidly evolving into one of the 21st century’s critical technologies for effective healthcare, but few people outside of the medical field have heard about why. Virtual reality has the potential to address many areas that current healthcare practices can’t, which is why it’s so exciting.
In this article, we’ll break down the ways that VR is being used in healthcare to help patients and doctors alike.
Treating Unique Patients
In one particularly notable use of VR in healthcare that received a lot of news coverage, doctors used a virtual reality interface paired with imaging software to design a new surgery for an infant born with a normally fatal heart malformation. This kind of use of VR will become more common for unique cases that are difficult to treat due to lack of information.
The amazing thing about using VR to treat unique patients is that VR models of relevant anatomical parts can be made using compilations of data that healthcare workers already harvest. This means that doctors can create 3D models of trouble areas using information compiled from MRIs and other imaging technologies.
Having 3D models without having to open up the patient in the operating room to get a look at what there is to work with is going to help doctors save a lot of lives provided that they have access to the right VR technology and understand how to use it to benefit rare patients.
Improvements in imaging and 3D modeling will also help doctors by mapping patient features to quantifiable rubrics to dictate what kind of intervention is necessary.
Treating Common Patients with Treatment-Resistant Symptoms
In many medical conditions affecting the brain or the inner ear, it’s extremely difficult to treat the symptom of poor balance—but VR can help, according to several preliminary cases.
The idea is that by allowing patients to move through simulated environments that doctors can control, the doctors can gain a more granular understanding of the extent and nature of the patient’s symptoms and then create VR worlds which can aid in rehabilitation or symptom reduction. While there isn’t a case of complete symptom remission using virtual reality as of yet, doctors and researchers are just getting started.
Distracting Patients During Medical Procedures
Some medical procedures are extremely uncomfortable, just as experiencing certain wounds can be extremely painful even when in the process of treatment. VR can be a great distraction from disconcerting or extremely painful medical procedures that the patient is typically awake during.
In particular, patients suffering from severe burns are increasingly being given VR pain relief in addition to analgesics. Because burn wounds are so painful, changing the dressings on burn victims is also extremely painful, and the pain resists treatment using standard analgesics.
In response to this issue, the VR program called “Snow World” was developed, which is made specifically to calm and reduce the pain associated with burns while patients have their bandages changed. Some data suggest that the patients who used Snow World reported nearly half as much pain as those who didn’t, which means that every burn unit should have a VR headset once the results are clinically validated.
Using VR during uncomfortable procedures also distracts patients from having to focus on the medical staff, and may even be able to drown out the somewhat disturbing sounds that medical procedures can produce.
Treating Mental Illnesses
Mental illnesses are often treatment resistant, which is why there is a substantial amount of research going into VR in the context of mental illness. Using VR in applications like PTSD has been a constant effort by clinicians, and there’s substantial evidence of its efficacy in helping people living with PTSD achieve some symptom remission.
There is also tremendous promise in using VR as a way of desensitizing phobic patients via structured exposure to the object of their phobias in a virtual environment. Rather than forcing patients into real-world desensitization immediately—which will still likely remain part of the treatment process for phobias—doctors could allow patients to interact with their phobia in a controlled environment.
It’s also clear that remission of phobias via VR needs to be performed very carefully lest the patient become triggered by a too-real experience of their phobia.
Training New Medical Professionals
One of the areas that VR technology shows the most promise in healthcare is in the training of new medical professionals. It’s incredibly time-consuming to train doctors, nurses, and specialists like surgeons to their full range and depth of abilities, and book learning can only take trainees so far.
VR can provide healthcare professionals with a far more realistic training environment that can bridge the gap between medical school and the operating room far better than anything else. Using soon-to-come haptic feedback technology, doctors can even get tactile feedback during their VR practice sessions, which would improve their ability to deliver care even more.
It goes without saying that VR could provide an entire medical school experience far more cheaply than is currently possible with in-person methods. This means that medical experience will become more widely available to the public, too.
Without a doubt, VR is in the process of revolutionizing healthcare in a way that provides better outcomes for patients and increases the efficiency of doctors, not to mention allowing doctors to treat previously inaccessible patients and symptoms. The only question that remains is one of hardware.
Currently, there aren’t any virtual reality headsets designed specifically for healthcare use, which is holding back their permeation into the healthcare sector. As soon as an enterprising hardware company takes on the challenge of creating a virtual reality headset that is sanitation friendly and optimized toward healthcare’s particular needs, healthcare companies everywhere will be scrambling to get a hold of them.
Virtual reality will likely see even more use in healthcare once VR-assisting technologies like haptic feedback become more developed, not to mention robotics. The doctors of the future probably won’t wear a VR headset all the time, but when they do, it’s going to be the ingredient that makes treatment possible where it isn’t possible today.