Many industries are now using Virtual Reality and the technologies that go with it, from designing products to walkthroughs of properties for sale, but the one industry that stands to benefit hugely from Virtual Reality is the healthcare industry – and, of course, the patients it serves.
Using Medical Virtual Reality to plan complex surgeries
Medical Virtual Reality enables surgeons to plan and rehearse complex procedures such as the separation of conjoined three-month-old twins at Minneapolis’ Masonic Children’s Hospital, which also used 3-D modelling to give surgeons and specialists a real-life look at the connection between the twins’ hearts in July 2017. 1
Of course, 3-D modelling is an extremely sophisticated way of preparing for what was extremely sophisticated surgery, but surgery on that level and in that detail can also be assisted by something a little less sophisticated.
For example, Google Cardboard prepared surgeons for the successful heart operation at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital to save the life of four-month-old Teegan Lexcen in 2016. 2
Using Medical Virtual Reality to control robotic surgery
Robotic surgery, controlled through Virtual Reality, enables a surgeon to turn what was once a major invasive operation into little more than keyhole surgery, causing less trauma to the patient and less stress to the surgeon, seated comfortably at a console throughout the entire procedure.
One such device is the da Vinci Si, the NYU Langone Medical Center’s computer-assisted surgical system. Positioned over the patient, three robotic arms use surgical instruments controlled by the surgeon, while a fourth holds 3D cameras. 3
And not only does the console not have to be anywhere near the patient, dual-console operations can permit assistance from additional surgeons, perhaps from another specialty,
Using Medical Virtual Reality to understand the needs of elderly patients
As patients grow older, it’s often difficult for medical students or even new doctors to understand the effects age can have on a patient, and even more difficult for them to empathise with their senior patients.
Embodied Labs created a Medical Virtual Reality programme to show younger medical personnel what life feels and looks like to be 74 years of age. Their “We Are Alfred” uses a Medical Virtual Reality headset, headphones and a hand tracking device to simulate six different scenes from the point of view of an elderly man with visual and hearing problems.
Although it’s not treatment oriented, “We Are Alfred” does help younger medical professionals appreciate age-related difficulties their older patients may have. 4
Using Medical Virtual Reality to combat the stress of long-term hospitalisation
For long-term patients just knowing they’re going to be in hospital for weeks to come – if not months – can add to the stress of being hospitalized in the first place.
To relieve that stress and so promote faster healing, patients at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital offer patients the chance to explore virtual reality worlds to help them release that stress, and in many cases this translates to shortening the patient’s stay and the amount of resources required during that stay. 5
Medical Virtual Reality as an alternative to anaesthesia
But Virtual Reality doesn’t just offer long-term benefits to patients in the long term: for short-term, minimally-invasive procedures, distraction through Virtual Reality scenarios offer frail and elderly patients an alternative to potentially risky anaesthesia and sedation.
And as for an alternative to anaesthesia or sedation for younger patients, Virtual Reality provides an equally-effective distraction for children undergoing anything from painful procedures to just simple injections. 6
Medical Virtual Reality as an alternative to painkilling medications
Virtual Reality might provide a welcome distraction from short-term discomfort, but as for chronic long-term pain, such as that suffered by burns victims and sickle cell disease patients it offers more than just a distraction: it’s been found to provide actual pain relief.
SnowWorld – a video game developed by the University of Washington game – overwhelms players’ senses and pain pathways to the brain while they hurl virtual snowballs at virtual penguins. And this according to a military study, works better than morphine for soldiers with burn injuries. 7
Using Medical Virtual Reality to treat PTSD
But soldiers don’t just suffer physical trauma: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can take a serious toll on those returning from war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although a paper from the University of Southern California cited the use of Virtual Reality for PTSD back in 1997 it’s only now when Virtual Reality headsets are commercially available (and much more affordable) that patients can be gently guided through replays of the kind of scenes triggering anxiety and fear since their return until they can cope with those memories. 8
Using Medical Virtual Reality to treat specific phobias
It’s said that up to 5% of Americans suffer from a “clinically significant phobia”.
San Diego’s Virtual Reality Medical Center provides a 3-dimensional computer simulation – plus monitoring and feedback – to treat specific panic and anxiety disorders.
There, the therapist and client go through increasingly higher levels of anxiety in virtual reality, repeating each until the client becomes comfortable with that virtual situation and then moving up to the next level of treatment. 9
Using Medical Virtual Reality to relieve stress and depression
For more generalised anxiety, out in the real world there’s meditation to help calm things down … and the same is applicable in the virtual world, too, no matter whether it’s the patent or the practitioner getting stressed out.
DEEP, according to the inventor’s website, is a “meditative and psychoactive Virtual Reality game that is controlled by breathing”.
Essentially, it’s a mixture between a video game and a yogic breathing teacher helping the user learn yogic breathing techniques to relieve stress, anxiety and mild depression using a commercially-available Oculus Rift VR headset and a device to measure the expansion of the user’s diaphragm to monitor breathing. 10
Using Medical Virtual Reality to cure homesickness
Another Virtual Reality-related calming technique – this time specifically for younger patients going stir-crazy in their hospital bed – comes from VisitU, a Dutch company setting out to cure a very common additional malady suffered by youngsters in hospitals everywhere: homesickness.
VisitU might not be able to take homesick children away from their wards, but they’ve come up with the next best thing: a Virtual Reality visit back home, thanks to a 360-degree camera and a virtual headset. But it’s not limited to a virtual tour of a familiar household: it’s also used to give children the opportunity to attend parties and sporting events. 11