As interest in virtual reality (VR) technology grows, some leaders believe it could transform the healthcare industry, Brock E.W. Turner writes for Modern Healthcare. But others are more skeptical, saying it's "hard to imagine" VR making a significant impact anytime soon.
According to Turner, interest in using VR technology in healthcare has grown over the last decade, and some leaders believe it may be the "next technology disruption in healthcare."
Organizations are currently testing VR's potential benefits in a number of areas, including for medical education and pain management.
At the Hospital for Special Surgery, Michael Ast, the health system's chief medical innovation officer and an associate professor of orthopedic surgery, helped create a VR training program for orthopedic surgery residents.
Using VR goggles, residents simulated several procedures that they typically perform during surgeries before they actually entered an operating room. According to Ast, the program has helped residents use their training time more efficiently.
"We ask our residents to go through the basic surgical procedures for each of those subspecialties—fracture, joint replacement, hand and pediatrics—right as they start the rotation," Ast said. "Go through it 10, 20, [or] 50 times, whatever fits within their schedule."
The training "allows them to get a lot more out of the rotation, since they really come in at a very different level of experience," he added.
At Cedars-Sinai, the organization's virtual medicine team is currently conducting three NIH trials on how VR technology could help patients deal with different types of pain. According to a 2019 study, virtual therapies were effective at reducing patients' reported pain scores.
"It's not a toy. It's actually making people feel better," said Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai. "We need to figure out why and how to implement it."
Currently, Spiegel and his team are partnering with Mayo Clinic on a study on VR technology and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Through the study, which launches in March, participants will visit different "treatment rooms" in a virtual clinic to learn about the causes of IBS, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to help them manage the condition in the long term.
"We don't need to rely on medications as much as we think we do," Spiegel said. "This is not instead of traditional therapies, but it can radically augment traditional therapies."
Not all healthcare leaders are fully onboard with VR technology, especially on a broader scale. In a 2022 report from Accenture, one-third said they believe the metaverse's impact on healthcare would be incremental, and roughly one-fifth said that it would be minimal.
According to Rema Padman, trustees professor of management science and healthcare informatics at Carnegie Mellon University, VR technology is promising, but how it could be used more broadly is unknown.
"The question is: Is this technology really appropriate for wide dissemination, or is it really appropriate for niche kinds of deployment?" she said. "That is still not clear."
Although Padman said smaller programs could be successful, there would need to be a fundamental shift in the healthcare industry for VR technology to be adopted more widely — much like telehealth did not see significant use until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many nonessential health services.
"I think completely disrupting the current mode of care delivery is kind of hard to imagine," Padman said.
Currently, there are around 100 to 150 hospitals in the United States that use VR technology, and providers in Europe and Asia are also beginning to implement the technology.
According to Spiegel, one of the benefits of VR technology is that its relatively low-cost: VR hardware can cost between $5,000 to $6,000, with some potential additional costs for software and training.
"To be honest, it's a rounding error on a hospital budget to support a VR service," Spiegel said. "The equipment is really inexpensive compared to, let's say, a Da Vinci robot or the thousands of other pieces of heavy equipment we use in a hospital."
However, researchers and health system leaders say that payer support will be critical for broader adoption of VR, even if the technology itself is inexpensive.
Most patients pay out-of-pocket for VR treatments outside of research trials. In addition, the lack of an official billing code for VR treatments makes it more difficult for patients to seek reimbursement for this kind of care.
To rectify this issue, some researchers and vendors are advocating that CMS classify VR as "durable medical equipment," which would give the technology a pathway to coverage. So far, the CMS process is progressing, but at a slow pace.
According to Rick Robinson, VP of AARP's AgeTech collaborative, people will likely need to have more hands-on experience with VR to help them understand the technology and its potential benefits in the healthcare space.
"Once [stakeholders] in many cases, put on the goggles, it's kind of an 'aha' moment," he said. (Turner, Modern Healthcare, 2/6)
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