Behavioral health providers faced difficult challenges last year as Covid-19 both increased the need for behavioral health services and restricted the availability of traditional treatment options, but virtual reality (VR) treatment presents a potential solution to their challenges.
In 2020, demand for behavioral health services increased 52%, but more than half of providers have had to close programs, and nearly two-thirds have had to cancel, reschedule, or turn away patients.
However, VR has the potential to mitigate the obstacles currently facing in-person care facilities by supplementing traditional talk therapy. VR treatment can involve either full VR (a completely immersive experience in a 3D computer-generated environment allowing interaction with a full simulation of the real world) or augmented reality (a supplemental experience that superimposes computer-generated content over a user's view of real surroundings). Some of the most promising behavioral conditions for VR treatment include anxiety, schizophrenia, substance-related disorders, and eating disorders. Required technology includes software, input devices, headsets (called HMDs), and other potential hardware. This can also require some training to set up, which many vendors provide.
VR is uniquely promising among a host of tech-based behavioral health solutions (chatbots, virtual therapy, etc.). The exclusive capability of VR to simulate a controlled version of reality can enhance therapeutic effects and provide additional benefits that other technologies cannot. For example, a full-immersion VR treatment for social anxiety by Oxford VR immerses patients in artificial daily socializing environments to practice interactions with virtual avatars with the help of their coach.
Here are two characteristics of VR treatment that make it stand out as a potential solution to the challenges of delivering behavioral health care.
1. VR is a versatile tool.
VR treatment is not limited to diagnosed patients or specific phases of a patient's care journey. In fact, VR can help with an initial assessment, diagnosis, treatment, follow-up care, and general wellness during any stage of a patient's behavioral health journey.
A meta-study in Psychological Medicine concluded that "VR has the potential to transform the assessment, understanding, and treatment of mental health problems." Combined with targeted therapy, VR can improve patients' care experience before, during, and after treatment.
VR therapy recipients also don't have to be formally diagnosed with a condition. A 2020 study published in Human-Computer Interaction reviewed the effectiveness of multiple-user VR (MUVR)—a remote system designed to immerse patients and their therapists in a virtual environment simultaneously—to treat young participants who expressed a high probability of developing an eating disorder. Researchers found MUVR successfully addressed psychological concerns even though the participants had not been diagnosed with any condition. The researchers concluded that "a well-designed, gamified MUVR can facilitate a friendly and playful discussion enhanced by specific interventions, allowing participants to express their emotional concerns freely, and enabling the therapist to understand and support their concerns."
VR isn't just for patients, either. Some hospitals are using VR as an empathy tool for clinicians, students, and caretakers to better understand the lived experience of patients with certain conditions or life events. This can allow providers to be more intuitive about their patients' needs and more engaged in their treatment plan.
2. VR treatment can be an effective remote solution.
Most vendors design health VR to administer sessions from home. Because Covid-19 caused many treatment facilities to close down, providers have few treatment options (other than talk therapy) that can be administered safely and remotely. With VR, patients can use tools—such as headsets and software—from home to connect to virtual therapists remotely.
According to a recent study, VR treatment from home successfully reduced symptoms with no adverse effects. In addition, researchers have found physical distance between patient and provider can even enhance therapeutic effects, as seen in the MUVR eating disorder risk study. Specifically, researchers found interacting through avatars can improve a patient's comfort and openness during remote sessions because they feel less "judged" and more immersed in their therapy, which can ultimately boost each session's therapeutic benefits.
Recent investments and research have also provided evidence that VR is an effective tool for safely handling a variety of behavioral health needs. A few (of the many) players who got involved in the health VR space in 2020 alone include Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the VA, Cleveland Clinic, Geisinger, and the National Human Genome Research Institute.
At this point, "we have now reached an inflection point where the technology is cheap enough, its quality good enough and the science voluminous enough to think seriously about leveraging VR to improve mental health at scale with home-based treatments," Brennan Spiegel, director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai, wrote in the Scientific American.