In previous blog posts we’ve explored the wonders virtual reality (VR) has to offer the healthcare industry and this blog post will discuss the ways in which it can be used to combat the disease that’s constantly bombarding the news channels and disrupting our everyday life: COVID-19. VR is being used in a variety of ways to tackle COVID-19, such as:
- trying to find drug targets
- rehabilitating ICU patients
- improving mental health
- training medical staff in the pandemic
In dark times, VR provides a beacon of hope.
Exciting news! VR could help find a treatment for COVID-19. Bristol’s School of Medicine has recently shown that Interactive Molecular Dynamics in Virtual Reality (iMD-VR) can help model new drugs against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Drugs known as enzyme inhibitors, which can target a SARS-CoV-2 enzyme called Mpro and block virus reproduction to stop disease development, are currently being researched. Using iMD-VR scientists have created a 3D model structure of the SARS-CoV-2 Mpro, so the researchers can ‘step inside’ it. This allowed them to see how viral proteins bind to the enzyme to understand how it works and also view its structure in order to develop a drug which will bind tightly to the enzyme and inhibit it effectively . Using iMD-VR also allows researchers from around the world to collaborate easily which facilitates the drug discovery process. This is extremely advantageous when trying to manage a pandemic disease. For example, by using cloud computing, researchers can work together concurrently in different geographical locations to carry out virtual molecular modelling, and this could result in discovery of a life-saving drug treatment for COVID-19 .
There is currently also research being done on the use of VR in rehabilitation of ICU COVID-19 patients . This is important because after discharge from the ICU patients often suffer from physical, psychological and cognitive problems. This approach is being taken to help recovering ICU COVID-19 patients because previous studies have shown that VR has been effective in increasing mobility and motor function in patients with other motor disorders [3,4]. Mental health is greatly affected during ICU hospitalisation, with a study finding that depression occurs in 30% of recovering patients and anxiety in 70% . VR has been shown to be a useful tool to improve mindfulness through meditation as well as through providing CBT. High stress experienced in ICU can negatively affect memory and concentration and it is thought that VR could be used to combat this, through immersive memory exercises with reduced distractions from the outside world [2,6].
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has not just impacted on the mental health of ICU patients, but also on the general public during the pandemic . In June 2020 it was reported that 69% of adults in the UK were worried about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and a survey carried out in late August showed that 8 out of 10 UK adults had experienced stress because of the pandemic [8,9]. Numerous VR experiences, including deep breathing experiences and immersive meditation, are being developed to deal with these growing levels of anxiety . Over 5000 studies have shown that VR can alleviate pain and anxiety and boost overall mood, and as there was a shortage of mental health professionals even before the pandemic, use of VR could mean that a lot more patients can be treated without requiring specialist mental health provision [11,12]. In fact, with current social distancing restrictions, VR is being discussed more and more as treatment for patients with pre-existing mental health and cognitive disorders who are unable to see their doctor [6,13].
As well as VR being used to treat people, it is also being used to train clinicians during the pandemic. Medical staff and students are learning to treat COVID-19 patients using VR so they can practice with a 3D holographic patient to see symptoms and understand how to treat them . This means that students do not have to be taught in hospitals and provides a safer learning experience as it ensures that they don’t come into contact with patients until after they are trained. VR is also being used to educate non-specialist medical staff to deal with medical problems that they may not have previously encountered, as more doctors are being moved from their specialties to help COVID-19 patients .
VR has been shown to be a useful tool as we struggle to get to get to grips with a new normal, and will only continue to be of more use as we move into a more technologically-reliant future, regardless of the outcome of the pandemic.
 Deeks, H., Walters, R., Barnoud, J., Glowacki, D. and Mulholland, A., 2020. Interactive Molecular Dynamics in Virtual Reality Is an Effective Tool for Flexible Substrate and Inhibitor Docking to the SARS-CoV-2 Main Protease. Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling, [online] Available at: <https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jcim.0c01030>
 Smits, M., Staal, B. and van Goor, H., 2020. Could Virtual Reality play a role in the rehabilitation after COVID-19 infection?. BMJ, [online] Available at: <https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/6/1/e000943>
 Darekar, A., McFadyen, B., Lamontagne, A. and Fung, J., 2015. Efficacy of virtual reality-based intervention on balance and mobility disorders post-stroke: a scoping review. Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation volume, [online] 12(46). Available at: <https://jneuroengrehab.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12984-015-0035-3>
 Wu, J., Loprinzi, P. and Ren, Z., 2019. The Rehabilitative Effects of Virtual Reality Games on Balance Performance among Children with Cerebral Palsy: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, [online] 16(21), p.4161. Available at: <https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/21/4161>
 Inoue, S., Hatakeyama, J., Kondo, Y., Hifumi, T., Sakuramoto, H., Kawasaki, T., Taito, S., Nakamura, K., Unoki, T., Kawai, Y., Kenmotsu, Y., Saito, M., Yamakawa, K. and Nishida, O., 2019. Post‐intensive care syndrome: its pathophysiology, prevention, and future directions. Acute Medicine & Surgery, [online] 6(3), pp.233-246. Available at: <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ams2.415>
 Mantovani, E., Zucchella, C., Bottiroli, S., Federico, A., Giugno, R., Sandrini, G., Chiamulera, C. and Tamburin, S., 2020. Telemedicine and Virtual Reality for Cognitive Rehabilitation: A Roadmap for the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Neurology, [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7522345/>
 Who.int. 2020. COVID-19 Disrupting Mental Health Services In Most Countries, WHO Survey. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/news/item/05-10-2020-covid-19-disrupting-mental-health-services-in-most-countries-who-survey>
 Ons.gov.uk. 2020. Coronavirus And The Social Impacts On Great Britain – Office For National Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritain/5june2020>
 Mental Health Foundation. 2020. Coping With The Pandemic: New Mental Health Research Reveals How UK Adults Are Managing Stress. [online] Available at: <https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/coping-with-the-pandemic>
 Chandler, S., 2020. Meet The Companies Using VR To Treat Coronavirus-Related Stress And Anxiety. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonchandler/2020/07/02/meet-the-companies-using-vr-to-treat-coronavirus-related-stress-and-anxiety/?sh=3f0c2d3b2160>
 Spiegel, B., 2020. Virtual Reality And The COVID Mental Health Crisis. [online] Scientific American. Available at: <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/virtual-reality-and-the-covid-mental-health-crisis/#:~:text=Over%205%2C000%20studies%20reveal%20that,a%20sense%20of%20psychological%20presence.>
 Whittle, N., 2020. The Effect Of Lockdown On Mental Health, And How VR Can Help. [online] Med-Tech Innovation | Latest news for the medical device industry. Available at: <https://www.med-technews.com/features/the-effect-of-lockdown-on-mental-health-and-how-vr-can-help/>
 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. 2020. COVID-19 Q&A: Therapy Via Virtual Reality. [online] Available at: <https://med.stanford.edu/psychiatry/about/covid19/vr.html>
 Dugdale, M., 2020. Nursing Students Use Microsoft Hololens For Covid-19 Training — Vrworldtech. [online] VRWorldTech. Available at: <https://vrworldtech.com/2020/09/08/nursing-students-use-microsoft-hololens-for-covid-19-training/>
 TechRepublic. 2020. 17,000 Doctors And Nurses Training For COVID-19 Pandemic Using VR Technology. [online] Available at: <https://www.techrepublic.com/article/free-medical-vr-training-system-being-offered-to-help-combat-the-covid-19-pandemic/>