Blog Post

How virtual reality is changing patient care

By Andrew Rebhan

April 25, 2017

    "Computer-mediated reality" refers to technology that modifies our perception of the real world. On one end of this technology spectrum is augmented reality, which superimposes digital images, holograms, and videos over a person's view of their real environment (such as through glasses or your smartphone screen). On the other end of the spectrum is virtual reality (VR), which uses software to generate a completely immersive, three-dimensional, computer-generated environment for the user.

    Despite its recent surge in popularity, VR is not new to health care: industry professionals have studied VR for decades to analyze how virtual systems could enhance clinician education and training and improve patient behavior and health. Historically, this has occurred in research laboratories and academic clinics, with some private industry collaboration. Today, the health care industry is one of the most promising fields for VR after the gaming industry, with potential applications across medicine, nursing, surgery, dentistry, and psychology.

    Early VR equipment suffered from not only a lack of computing power, but also hardware that was often too large and expensive (with headsets alone costing tens of thousands of dollars), which hindered widespread adoption. However, VR technology has benefitted from the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices and personal computers, which has led to a rapid decline in hardware costs since the early 2000s. Large companies such as Facebook, Sony, and Samsung have started to invest heavily in the market, selling VR headsets for less than $1,000; Google's Cardboard VR headset sells for just $15.

    As VR becomes more affordable and practical to use, health care organizations are exploring how to leverage VR as a tool for patient care. Some of the ways VR might be used in clinical care settings include:

    Medical interventions

    • Rehabilitation (stroke, brain injury, physical therapy)

    • Vision therapy (amblyopia, strabismus)

    • Pain management (acute, chronic)

    • Telemedicine (virtual doctors)

    • Assessments (neuropsychological, diagnostics, activities of daily living)

    Treating behavioral and mental Health

    • Addictions (alcohol, drugs)

    • Developmental and learning disabilities (autism, Asperger's syndrome)

    • Mental disorders (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer's disease)

    • Mood disorders (depression)

    • Exposure therapy (Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, phobias)

    Improving general health and wellness

    • Meditation

    • Fitness (diet, exercise)

    • Treating isolation

    • Recreation

    • Virtual travel for the disabled

    VR skeptics

    Despite VR's promise, there are plenty of skeptics who feel more research is needed to make a strong case for its widespread use. Even though VR has been around for some time, the technology has just now started to reach its potential, and it is too early for VR to become the primary option for patient care. There are additional barriers to adoption, such as uncertainty regarding the return-on-investment of large-scale VR programs, a lack of diversified software content, and regulatory hurdles from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    From a clinical perspective, future VR adoption will be driven by the need to sustain well-designed, controlled studies that provide evidence that VR is clinically sound and cost effective. VR may eventually help health care organizations personalize care, increase patient satisfaction, reduce pain and drug dependency, and boost preventative care measures. VR initiatives will likely fail if they are isolated or sporadic and do not leverage the support of a multidisciplinary group of IT experts, device manufacturers, regulators, payers, and other care providers.

    Read our Daily Briefing article to learn more about how hospitals are using VR to manage patient pain.

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