And it’s already showing incredible results. VR transports us to faraway worlds without even asking us to leave our chairs. Yet we usually hear about it in the context of video games or the art world. Now, the world of healthcare is starting to wake up to the possibilities on offer. Here are some of the innovators who are tapping into the power of simulations to bring more humane and effective treatments to patients in need.
At the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, therapeutic treatment is starting to look a little different. Brennan Spiegel, director of research for the hospital, is bringing VR to the patients.
Spiegel leads a team of researchers whose job is to develop ways to make medical use of virtual reality. The team have been trying out a variety of different techniques in therapeutics, and they say they’re excited with the results.
A VR environment designed to distract patients from their pain was found to be just as effective as the opioids which would usually be prescribed. Spiegel compares the technique to yoga and mindfulness meditation. Patients were even able to deal with pain more effectively after the treatment, not only during it. Is it possible to reach Zen in a virtual world, and then bring this mindset back with you?
VR also helped teach patients healthier lifestyle habits. A surreal VR program transports patients with high blood pressure to a virtual kitchen, where they are educated on which foods should be avoided to reduce sodium intake. Then they travel inside a human body, to see the effects of sodium from within.
After that, who wouldn’t be convinced to eat healthier meals?
The team also creates more specific environments to suit individual patients’ needs. One patient with Crohn’s disease was restricted to the hospital for a long period. When he told doctors that he found his grandmother’s living room to be a uniquely calm, healing environment, they had the solution. The team used a 360-degree camera to capture the appearance of this room, and transport the patient to it through VR.
Spiegel says that the young man was so comforted by this experience that he was brought close to tears.
But it’s not only patients who gain benefits from VR. Shafi Ahmed, from startup Medical Realities, wants to put virtual and augmented reality to use in the education of aspiring surgeons.
It won’t be the first time surgery has been given the VR treatment. But where previous surgical VR experiences were deliberately ridiculous games, Medical Realities intends to use the technology as a serious training tool.
Ahmed has worked with various options for spreading knowledge of surgical techniques. In 2014, he used Google Glass to stream a surgical training session to 14,000 surgeons around the world. In 2016, he livestreamed an actual instance of cancer surgery in VR, and used Snapchat glasses to record an operation in short clips and broadcast it to a huge global audience.
Now, the innovator is working with a VR company called Thrive, to create a virtual doctors’ office in which doctors from different locations can come together via VR to discuss patients and prognoses. The office even includes virtual copies of the relevant patient files.
A spirit of openness guides all Ahmed’s innovations. He says he is motivated by the fact that there is an enormous need for more surgeons in the world today. His solution? “I want to share knowledge with the masses.” VR presents the opportunity for long-distance learning, consultation, and – as headsets become more and more accessible – a miraculously wide reach.
These are just a couple of examples of the way VR is currently reshaping medicine across the world. But we write about the present to imagine how the future might look. The humane technologies of VR seem set to continue expanding and innovating. It falls to us to imagine all the potential uses to which they could be put.
How will a visit to the doctor look in a few years’ time? Instead of driving to the clinic, you might simply put on your headset and meet your digital doctor. You might be able to practice healthy lifestyle choices in a virtual environment to train yourself for reality. You could relieve the boredom of a long hospital stay with adventures in VR.