You may already know that virtual reality (VR) is being widely adopted in healthcare today in an array of applications, but there are certain companies who are taking it one step further and shaping this technology to directly benefit patients. From helping patients better understand the procedures they have scheduled, to facilitating the rehabilitation for those who have suffered strokes and serious brain injuries, these companies are truly at the forefront of re-shaping support for patients at all stages of their recovery journeys. Before we get into that, it is important to remember the difference between VR and augmented reality (AR). VR is an immersive experience in a simulated world and AR overlays digital information onto the real-world using displays, cameras, and sensors . AR essentially enhances the real-world, whereas VR creates an entirely new world .
Many patients experience anxiety while in hospital before upcoming procedures and appointments. Understandably, the apprehension and worry patients feel, and the actual pain one suffers during or after procedures can be taxing and unpleasant for the individual . The use of a VR headset for patients to view calming landscapes prior to and during operations in a pilot study at St George’s Hospital has been shown to ease patient’s discomfort. 100% of participants reported an improved overall hospital experience from wearing the headset, 95% said they felt more relaxed, 80% said they felt less pain after wearing the headset, and 73% reported feeling less anxious . Austin Mills was one of the first patients to wear the headset during surgery and after his shoulder operation, he said “The headset helped to take my mind off what was going on and I had to make a conscious effort to not fall asleep, it was extremely relaxing. I didn’t know how long I was in there for, or what was going on around me – I was completely immersed in the VR experience.” . By distracting patients from painful stimuli, VR has been shown to produce a decline in pain levels in patients suffering from gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurological, and post-surgical pain . VR is also being used to help women with pain during childbirth .
As well as helping patients manage pain and anxiety around procedures in hospitals, there are 2 companies that have developed VR solutions that are the treatment themselves! OxfordVR focuses on using VR to relieve the symptoms of mental disorders and fears. It has a fear of heights simulation which reduced the issue in patients by 68% after only two hours of treatment! [3, 7]. Karuna Labs uses evidence-based approaches to treat chronic pain through VR simulations. The treatments can be done at home or in a local clinic where the program lasts from 4-12 weeks depending on the individual’s needs .
VR is also being used to speed up recovery for patients who are receiving physical therapy. For patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury or a stroke, there is no time to lose when initiating rehabilitation. The earlier rehabilitation is started, the more likely they are to successfully regain their lost capabilities . Neuro Rehab VR brings a gamified approach to physical therapy . Through the collaboration of physicians and therapists, VR training exercises with machine learning have been developed to tailor specific exercises to patients’ individual therapeutic needs. The approach aims to increase patient engagement by making physical therapy more enjoyable . In a study from last year on the effect of virtual reality therapy on functional development in children with cerebral palsy, statistically significant improvements were seen in children’s mobility across all parameters tested. So much so, that the authors called for adding this method to conventional rehabilitation techniques to improve outcomes for patients . More on this, XRHealth is the first company to create VR clinics to provide remote care to patients even after they have been in physical therapy for long periods of time but are still struggling with lingering injuries or cognitive conditions . The platform is used throughout the US and the scheme is covered by most major health insurance companies . A unique feature of XR health is the virtual support groups that can be created for patients with similar conditions. Patients can connect anonymously and remotely with leading physicians moderating the groups .
Educating patients about their procedures, and more tailored surgical planning utilising an individual’s personalised anatomy data is being facilitated by VR. The Surgical Theatre has created a surgical rehearsal platform for neurosurgical procedures called Precision VR. This platform allows for better preoperative planning as well as simulations patients can go through with their health provider to better understand the problem and the procedure. For example, if someone has an upcoming operation to remove a brain tumour, a VR scenario can show them the process they will undergo [3, 11]. Immersive Touch is another company developing this technology, they create 3D VR models using a patient’s individualised medical imaging data to do so .
The difference and potential VR has in the treatment of patients is truly amazing. VR is being used to revolutionise advanced patient care at all stages of the recovery process. The VR companies mentioned above are proof of the pioneering ideas held by many of the devoted people working to advance these technologies, and we cannot wait to see what else is possible in this field.
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