The many faces of medical virtual reality
Although the use of virtual reality in healthcare is not widespread yet, the technology holds great promise. Goldman Sachs estimated in its 2016 report that 8 million physicians and medical technicians could make use of augmented reality or virtual reality products worldwide – and the number of users could grow from an estimated 0.8 million in 2020 to 3.4 million until 2025. Medical education, surgery, rehabilitation medicine, psychiatry, and psychology could all benefit from VR. As a doctor, you could assist in the OR without ever lifting a scalpel or prepare for complex surgeries efficiently. As a medical student, you could study the human body more closely and get ready for real-life operations.
However, patients will benefit the most. Virtual reality can support better management of chronic pain, can treat fears and phobias or help survive medical events, from as painful as childbirth until vaccination. For example, not only does virtual reality make rehabilitation from neck, spinal or other injuries faster and easier, but you could escape the confinement of your hospital room and travel to Iceland.
These cases all illustrate that medical VR is an excellent tool for addressing the issues that make the healthcare journey for patients more agreeable: alleviating pain, dissipating fear, offering more empathy and care. Here, we collected the best examples how the technology could make healthcare more pleasant.
1) Teaching empathy to med students
Although medical students leaning over thick volumes of anatomy might not share this view at earlier stages of their studies, but one of the most challenging parts of being a doctor is mastering the patient-doctor communication. Empathy is an indispensable tool here.
„Whether out of dignity or shock, silence usually reigns, and so holding a patient’s hand becomes the mode of communication,” writes Paul Kalanithi in his absolutely and utterly beautiful book When Breath Becomes Air; as he had to talk to a patient after brain surgery about chemotherapy, radiation, and prognosis for brain tumor.
Delivering difficult news being it about a cancer diagnosis or the death of the patient to the family requires enormous strength of mind and empathy from the doctor, but also appropriate practice. That is where VR comes into the picture. Researchers from Medical Cyberworlds Inc. and the University of Michigan conducted research with 421 medical students about the use of virtual reality in patient-doctor communication. They used the Mpathic-VR technology that allowed users to talk with emotive, computer-based virtual humans who can see, hear and react to them in real time. The virtual humans used a full range of behaviors expected of two people talking together. Applying this technique in future curriculums, med students could practice difficult conversations before going out and experiencing them in real life.
2) Making vaccination more tolerable
No one likes to get vaccinated. Many people have a fear of needles, while plenty of others cannot get themselves diverted from the experienced pain. The American Academy of Pediatrics even found in its August 2016 study that one of the reasons parents delay vaccinating their children is due to concerns of discomfort.
It is interesting to see how doctors employ certain strategies to help patients. They tell them to look at specific spots, tell stories or jokes. For example, an Austrian doctor treating arthritis patients used to tell jokes about football while using painkiller injection on the treated knee.
The examples of a pilot study and a Brazilian hospital show that there is an even more efficient way to make needles and vaccination more tolerable. In a study of 244 children at Sansum Clinic locations in Santa Barbara and Lompoc, California, roughly half of the children were given virtual reality goggles to view ocean scenes while getting their seasonal flu shot. Parents reported that their sons and daughters experienced 48 percent less pain and 52 percent less fear, and the clinicians mentioned even higher numbers – 75 percent less pain and 71 percent less fear.
The Hermes Pardini Laboratories’ VR Vaccine campaign battles children’s fear of taking vaccine shots wonderfully. Children can immerse themselves in the virtual world of a lively cartoon where they can feel like superheroes building a shield against monsters by getting the “Fire Fruit” – the actual shot in reality.
3) Mitigating fear and traumas
Are you afraid of giant tarantulas crawling on your back? Do you have a fear of heights, so you get the cold sweat when you have to climb to the top floor of your office building? Virtual reality offers a new way to get rid of fears and phobias.
The immersive environment re-creates the fearful situation for patients – but it also offers them a safe place to get over their fears: they are under the control of physicians, and they can get out of the simulation any time. The Spanish and American behavioral health technology company, Psious offers this unique VR treatment for psychological conditions such as fear of flying, needles, various animals, public speaking, general anxiety or agoraphobia. Virtually Better, the pioneering VR company founded in 1996, offers among others an exposure therapy for people suffering from anxiety disorders, specific phobias or post-traumatic stress syndrome.
A research team at the University of Southern California developed a project called Bravemind, another VR exposure therapy for soldiers to gradually immerse them into the virtual environment similar to the one where they got traumatized to help them process their feelings associated with their traumas.
4) Giving birth easier and managing chronic pain
Delivering a baby is a process of enduring long hours of pain with the euphoric moments of birth. Virtual reality might help women distract themselves and divert their attention towards proper breathing and a spot to focus on.
Erin Bratton Martucci, the first woman, experiencing childbirth through VR told The Medical Futurist that it had a genuinely calming effect on her – she didn’t even realize she was already wearing the VR goggles for two hours before the doctor took them off of her. She explained that she wanted to deliver her baby girl drug-free, didn’t want to have an epidural, so when her doctor offered the VR option, she and her husband said, why not. Although it was already two years ago, she recounts the beach scene and the calming voice as if it was yesterday, and she would try it again without hesitation.
Being immersed in a VR environment helps not only women in labor but also patients experiencing chronic pain – a debilitating and frustrating experience which was exclusively manageable by painkillers in the past. This situation seems to change with the help of VR. 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. In a recent clinical trial, out of 100 people who self-reported persistent, daily pain, half had the chance to play a VR game called Bear Blast. The other half got to watch 2-D relaxation videos of lakes and babbling brooks. While they experienced a small bit of relief, the VR group reported feeling 25 percent less pain than when they started.
5) Making dying patients’ last wishes come true
David Parker, an IT consultant from Toronto, uses the power of virtual reality to bring joy to palliative care patients. He lets bedridden patients get out of their beds virtually and travel around the world. As a result of his efforts, Bridgepoint Health and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, has introduced virtual reality headsets in their palliative care programmes.
No matter whether people want to go to Africa, see the Northern Lights or experience scuba-diving, Parker finds a way for people to cross items off their bucket list with the help of VR. There were even patients who already “traveled” with VR more than once and keep going back for the experience. David Parker told HIMMS Insights Europe that it is powerful because it takes you out of your environment, your hospital room, and immerses you in other settings.
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