Did you know it is possible to swim with whales in the ocean while lying on a hospital bed? Have you imagined experiencing your 74th birthday as a 20-something? Perhaps followed a risky surgery from your couch?
Medical VR is an area with fascinating possibilities. It has not just moved the imagination of science-fiction fans, but also clinical researchers and real life medical practitioners. Although the field is brand new, there are already great examples of VR having a positive effect on patients’ lives and physicians’ work.
1) Watching operations as if you wielded the scalpel
Did you ever wonder what is going on in an operating room? What those doctors and nurses dressed in blue or green with masks on their head are doing?
For the first time in the history of medicine, on 14 April 2016 Shafi Ahmed cancer surgeon performed an operation using a virtual reality camera at the Royal London hospital. Everyone could participate in the operation in real time through the Medical Realities website and the VR in OR app. No matter whether a promising medical student from Cape Town, an interested journalist from Seattle or a worried relative, everyone could follow through two 360 degree cameras how the surgeon removed a cancerous tissue from the bowel of the patient.
Virtual reality could elevate the teaching and learning experience in medicine to a whole new level. Today, only a few students can peek over the shoulder of the surgeon during an operation and it is challenging to learn the tricks of the trade like that. With a virtual reality camera, surgeons can stream operations globally and allow medical students to actually be there in the OR using their VR goggles.
2) Relaxing chronic patients with Medical VR
Have you ever lain down on a hospital bed counting the days until you are released? Did you, as a patient ever have the feeling that time just stops in the hospital, there is nothing to do, you miss your family and friends and you are constantly worried about your condition?
Brennan Spiegel and his team at the Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles introduced VR worlds to their patients to help them release stress and reduce pain. With the special goggles, they could escape the four walls of the hospital and visit amazing landscapes in Iceland, participate in the work of an art studio or swim together with whales in the deep blue ocean.
Spiegel says that not only can the hospital experience be improved with medical VR, but the costs of care may also be reduced. By reducing stress and pain, the length of the patient’s stay in the ward or the amount of resources utilized can both be decreased.
A similar project called Farmoo was developed by enthusiastic university students. As its main creator, Henry Lo says “it is intended to help teen cancer patients get distracted during chemotherapy treatments so that they can focus more on the activities inside the game, rather than the treatment itself.
3) Making children feel like they’re at home
The experience in a hospital is even more stressful and mentally burdening for small children who miss their parents, their best buddies, their favourite blanket and generally, the soothing environment called home.
Now, a Dutch company made their dreams possible. Through a smartphone and virtual glasses, VisitU makes live contact possible with a 360 degree camera at the patient’s home, school or special occasions such as a birthday celebration or a football game. Though hospitalized, young patients can relax and still enjoy their lives.
Through Medical VR, it might become easier for relatives and friends to maintain relations with their loved once in hospital care since the lengthy drives to the hospital could be spared, making room for more quality time spent together.
4) Helping physicians experience life as an elderly
Did you ever wonder how it feels like to grow old? How it feels like to not be able to lift your hand above your head? How it feels like when you’ve lost one of your fingers, or recover from a heart attack?
Embodied Labs created “We Are Alfred” by using VR technology to show young medical students what ageing means. Everyone can be the hypothetical Alfred for 7 minutes, and experience how it feels like to live as a 74 year-old man with audio-visual impairments.
The developers’ ultimate goal is to solve the disconnection between young doctors and elderly patients due to their huge age difference. Fostering empathy between caretakers and their charges is much easier when physicians can see things from the patients’ perspectives.
5) Speeding up recovery after a stroke
For patients who survived a stroke or traumatic brain injury, time is of the essence. The earlier they start rehabilitation, the better chances they have for successfully regaining lost functions.
MindMotionPro, produced by the Swiss Mindmaze allows patients to “practice” how to lift their arms or move their fingers with the help of virtual reality. Although they might not carry out the actual movement, the app enhances attention, motivation and engagement with visual and auditory feedback. The app makes the practice of repetitive movements fun for patients. The resulting mental effort helps their traumatized nervous systems to recover much faster than lying helplessly in bed.
This question was just one among the 40 most exciting, surprising and heartwarming ones I was asked about the future of medicine over the years. I’ve answered all in my book, My Health: Upgraded. Learn more on Amazon.