Bringing technology to everyday care is a long and difficult process

Average online news consumers can bump into amazing scientific innovations and medical achievements every week. On 15 September, the Daily Mail reported that researchers have developed an AI that is able to detect Alzheimer’s almost 10 years earlier than doctors can by looking at symptoms alone. Two days later, another online magazine published an article about Canadian scientists using 3D printing to regenerate heart muscle tissue. Promising research into the potential of innovative technologies is striving, and I’m thrilled to see it.

However, eye-catching headlines tend to overshadow and people are inclined to believe that all these amazing accomplishments are already out there, used in hospitals every day the way it was used in laboratories producing similar results. Yet, bringing disruptive technologies to the practice of medicine is a time-consuming and difficult process; while the ultimate usability and success depend on so many elements.

One of the most important aspects is the human factor. In spite of the common belief, the successful application of innovative medical technologies does not depend solely on the technology itself, the most decisive factor is always the human component. What do you make of an innovative solution if you have no idea how to use it? Missing skills for using and implementing a certain innovation into everyday care could be a major impediment for bringing healthcare into the 21st century. Virtual reality is a great example how to overcome the challenge.

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How do you bring virtual islands to suffering patients?

Cartoons with virtual squirrels searching for nuts around you, gamers chasing virtual enemies in Game of Thrones-like castles: the application of VR is quite inevitable in the entertainment industry. But what do you make of it in healthcare?

Dr. Brennan M. Spiegel and his research team at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have been experimenting with virtual reality for years. They have already treated hundreds of patients with VR therapy. His team concluded that use of VR in hospitalized patients significantly reduces pain versus a control distraction condition. An experiment showed that among 100 patients who watched a 15-minute nature video with beautiful mountains and running streams, accompanied by calming music, there was a 13 percent drop in their pain scores, while patients who watched a 15-minute animated game called Pain RelieVR had a 24 percent decline in their pain levels. That’s a very promising result, so how would I convert that to my own patients?

I’ve tried the whole range of VR devices from the simplest cardboard to the most sophisticated Oculus. The resolution got better by time and the experience has produced less and less dizziness as the technology has developed. But the real issue has never been the technology but the way it could be added to the practice of care. If I want to use VR with my patients, where do I start? What do I buy? What will I use it for? How will I evaluate the results?

The ultimate response: appliedVR

appliedVR developed a platform and a package that answers all the above questions. The company itself has great credentials: Cedars-Sinai and Brennan Spiegel’s research team has been their partner for years. Together they have completed the fourth VR study. Yet, appliedVR has also several clinical studies underway with partners including Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Cornell, Boston Children’s Hospital, George Washington University and Inova Healthcare.

Josh Sackman, President of appliedVR told me that between their clinical studies and the everyday use, their solution has been in the hands of thousands of patients. They offer a variety of validated content to patients; and their ultimate aim is to extend this “VR pharmacy” to the largest possible provider of clinical VR content. There are more than 20 apps for guided meditation, games for rehabilitation, movies and animations that let users get accustomed to VR; and also documentaries that feel like a meditation session (e.g. about wildlife, oceans, and Iceland).

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Their Bear Blast game, where you can throw red balls on bears in a virtual world, has been shown to reduce pain 24% among hospitalized patients at Cedars-Sinai. Through their Guided Relaxation, patients could reduce their anxiety during infusions, fertility procedures, in the emergency room, and other stressful situations. Others might try appliedVR’s travel experiences, as The Dolphin Swim Club’s ‘Dolphin Swim,’ when they need an escape from the isolation that occurs in hospitals, senior care facilities, and hospices.

So when appliedVR sent me their package for a review and I couldn’t wait to start discovering the options!

Fool-proof VR device with amazing medical apps

When I opened the package, I found a high-end Samsung smartphone, a Samsung VR device powered by Oculus, a headset, cables, and instructions. The latter helps you set up the device and deal with the apps. It was easy to put on the device, and I also managed to attach the straps without any difficulties. The phone is easy to attach and de-attach, charging did also not cause any troubles. The device started to work immediately and I have to say it is so user-friendly I have to call it fool-proof. Its menu is unambiguous, and for its use, you either click on a button on the right side of the gadget or you click on something by just looking at it for a few seconds. That’s a very smart solution!

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Afterwards, you can immediately dive into the VR content pre-installed on the phone. You can try the various (medical) apps, games, movies or animations. The smartphone is only to check out the VR app on the phone or set the access to Wi-Fi, every other function is forbidden. I was tempted to try the Bear Blast and I enjoyed it so much already the first time that I haven’t even realized I played it for 15 minutes. The immersive experience of VR completely touched me; I can truly imagine that a patient suffering from chronic pain would entirely forget about his state after trying any of this content. I also tried the guided meditation which was much more efficient than those apps such as Aura or Headspace I have used on my phone. The 3D videos look good but not good enough compared to similar videos in HD quality on Youtube.

After the VR adventure, I did not feel any dizziness or nausea, which shows the improvement of the headset over time. Although it would be great if I could wear my glasses with the headset for a change as not seeing clearly does have repercussions regarding the entire experience.

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Don’t look at the price tag

The only negative trait of appliedVR is its exorbitant price. You either buy the standard package for $2,588 or buy the premium one for a little bit more than $3,700 that comes with on-site training and prioritized support. The first version contains the Samsung phone, the GearVR Headset, cables, VR content and virtual training workshop.

Yet, as the MIT Technology Review noted, typically the equipment needed to bring virtual reality into hospitals (or anywhere else, for that matter) has been extremely pricey. Hunter Hoffman, director of the virtual reality research center at the University of Washington’s Human Photonics Laboratory and a developer of a pain control game called SnowWorld, says the VR equipment he’s using as part of an intensive care unit pain-relief study costs $35,000. Now, compared to that, appliedVR is relatively affordable.

All-in-all, appliedVR is a great first step into using VR for medical purposes without prior knowledge about the technology. Still, I hope that it will become cheaper in the future so that the beneficial impacts of VR could also be sensed by the less wealthy and affluent.

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