Virtual Reality: Healthcare’s Next Frontier

Virtual Reality: Healthcare’s Next Frontier

The excitement from early adopters regarding virtual reality (VR) has been hard to ignore. Despite lacking mainstream adaptation, VR, as many technology and industry experts believe, could be the next big thing. One important industry the rise of VR can dramatically impact would be healthcare.

From schools to clinics, the potential of virtual reality technology can impact the many faces of healthcare and patient management.

To understand just how much VR can change the future for providers and patients alike, one must look at the very beginning of it all: the training of doctors.

VR in Medical Schools

Medical students today will lead tomorrow’s healthcare systems. Unsurprisingly, they are also at the forefront of experiencing what VR technology has to offer.

The J and K Virtual Reality Learning Center, a pioneer in the US, has a full suite of high-tech tools. These tools help students understand complicated subjects such as biochemistry and anatomy in environments impossible without the technology. The centerpiece of the J and K Virtual Reality Learning Center is a digital anatomy table that uses high-definition touchscreens. The Anatomage Virtual Dissection Table allows for easier access to full-scale anatomic exploration. Using their fingers, students can remove layers, zoom in, rotate, and manipulate human tissues on the display. However, the Anatomage’s technology hasn’t exactly crossed into the realm of the VR.

The Oculus Rift program of the learning center is a better preview of how VR can help students learn. Their system allows students to “fly through” the human body. Microscopic functions are enlarged in an immersive environment. This gives students an unprecedented up-close view to just how the tiniest parts of the human body work.

In Nebraska, the $118.9-million Davis Global Center is under construction. The facility will also feature VR technology that allows aspiring surgeons to enter an “operating room” and practice their skills on virtual patients. VR’s possible impact on surgery has been proven already. In April last year, an expert cancer surgeon was able to live stream his operation via virtual reality. This allowed him to “train” 13,000 medical students from all around the world.

Immersive Training

Medical emergencies are high-pressure environments. The full-sensory immersion in VR can build a convincing experience. Companies like OneBonsai (Belgium), AnimmersionVR (UK), and even Red Cross Netherlands are creating VR environments that train people in first aid. This doesn’t just teach students the hard skills but also let them practice under realistic conditions.

In extreme cases such as cardiac arrest, the first ten minutes which is usually before an ambulance arrives could mean the difference between life and death. People who have previously felt the urgency during such situations via VR are expected to be more calm and prepared.

With VR technology, more people can receive training in essential lifesaving skills. A study published in Med Teach by Woolliscroft et al. suggest that simulation can lead to twice as better performance for half the time of training.

Virtual Reality in Diagnosis

The ability to put patients in extremely controlled environments has allowed doctors to diagnose the trickiest diseases. These diseases, mostly neurological or psychiatric in origin, are notoriously hard to measure due to their complexity and lack of tools for doctors.

A great example would be unilateral spatial neglect (USN), or the inability to focus on an object at a specific side. Common to patients with paralysis, they were previously diagnosed using pen and paper. These traditional diagnostics had limited real-life impact. In a published study by the Laboratory of Psychology and Neuro-Cognition in Grenoble, France, the use of VR gave a successful, more-detailed diagnosis of USN among patients.

Breakthroughs also include diagnosis of dementia,. A game called Sea Hero Quest, which plans to launch in VR, is hoping to become a reliable tool in diagnosing the disease in at-risk groups.

A recently published review of the literature by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Netherlands reveal that VR environments were able to provoke and measure patient reactions to stimulus in patients with schizophrenia, developmental disorders, eating disorders and anxiety disorders.

Treatments, Clinics, and Much More to Come

At this point in time, it is impossible to imagine exactly how and to what extent VR can change the way healthcare systems work. However, the samples above illustrate its many potentials. With a generally open-minded welcome from many professionals and proactive research, VR is coming to the clinic and hospitals sooner than you may think.