The Future of Health Care looks Virtual

I had recently stumbled across an article that mentioned the viability of using virtual reality (VR) solutions in the healthcare space, and was immensely interested by the potential uses of the platform in such a novel way. Too often do we relegate VR to a “gamer’s passion” or as a “dying fad.” In opposition to these notions, Inc.com recently detailed the top five potential uses for VR in healthcare, and each one looks more promising to me than the last!

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1. Dealing with addiction

As someone who has seen addiction sweep across communities near my hometown, I truly understand the impact that substance abuse can have on families, communities, and social groups. One of the biggest problems when addressing this phenomenon is the fact that relapses occur with such a high frequency that people who have dependency problems sometimes forgo rehabilitation altogether due to their perception that “getting help leads back to substances anyway.” With VR, those in rehab can lean on the powerful perception-altering qualities of the virtual world instead when they feel the pull of their old lifestyle during treatment. In addition, as our own mobile devices become increasingly powerful, they can even serve as basic VR platforms as well, allowing those who are reliant upon them to access virtual treatment whenever and wherever the situation demands.

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2. Accelerating physical rehab

While it’s both heartbreaking and a constant uphill battle to complete the immensely challenging requirements of overcoming a physical injury, VR could serve to either diminish the pain associated with physical rehab or lessen the psychological impact of the rehab process. Studies have shown that visual stimulus is one of the most effective methods of distracting one from the pain of a situation. In addition, the feelings of despair from seemingly slow progress could be mitigated or redirected altogether by implementing VR games and milestones into a treatment plan, thereby accelerating the treatment period.

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3. Simplifying advanced concepts

A long-time friend of mine is currently completing his third year in residency to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, and has often stated the dangers of gaining experience while working in the trauma unit at his hospital. However, there is currently no viable alternative to exposing new doctors to the human body without potentially putting a life on the line for the sake of education and training. With VR, the danger of requiring a doctor-in-training to work on live bodies could be mitigated or nullified entirely. The human body is an extraordinarily complicated organic machine, with tubes, veins, and organs scattered throughout. If we could reproduce these features on a virtual plane, then our future healthcare professionals could gain valuable experience by exploring the nuances of the human body before ever coming into contact with a life-or-death scenario. After completing such a VR-assisted training regimen, the mortality rate as a result of operator error could potentially plummet.

4. Assuaging patients before risky procedures

Even if a surgeon has been fully trained and is completely prepared for an upcoming surgery, there is no guarantee that the patient can be reassured that they are in good hands, and that the procedure will be a success. With the assistance of VR, that could very well change. In this scenario, the projections of the human body that the doctors have been trained with would be simplified for the layperson to understand. Then, the patient in question would be exposed to a virtual mapping of the procedure, and given a step-by-step walkthrough of how the procedure is expected to take place. This serves to both enlighten and calm the patient, and even breaks the language barrier in the numerous cases where a pre-operation patient isn’t a native English speaker. A picture tells a thousand words, making a VR presentation probably something that could convey a million – now with no bias against the native language of the patient.

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5. To familiarize the aging process

It is no secret that the more “seasoned” have radically different health and family requirements than the rest of us. In situations where such patients require care, it can be difficult to find the appropriate staff to effectively render the proper services. In this example, VR can serve to educate future doctors about proper diagnoses of health issues resulting from advanced aging as well as how to deliver news of these issues to the concerned family and friends of these patients. As we all age, we develop different social and familial relationships, usually forming bonds that are both strong and lifelong. When an older patient encounters a health issue, it can devastate an entire group. With VR, a doctor can be trained on how to lessen the impact of a diagnosis for both the patient and the patient’s social circle, something that currently can’t be learned from textbooks and manuals alone.

Although I’m not discounting the fun that can arise from virtual reality platforms, there are simply so many more applications waiting to be implemented using such advanced tools. The head-tracking, motion-sensing, and 3D rendering features built into all of today’s VR kits can simulate a dust-covered, bullet-riddled battlefield just as well as they can a dissected and plaque-covered aorta of a patient. To relegate such advanced technology to only fun and entertainment would be a disservice to their potential. I believe that, with the help of the VR equipment of today and near-future, we can lower the impact of society-crippling addictions and illnesses to raise the standard of living beyond the 21st century.

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8 comments

  1. Great to see the potential medical application of virtual reality. In the near future, I think we could definitely see the use of VR in training medical professions and educating patients on their procedures. It would definitely help to reduce the risk of training doctors, giving them experience in lower stakes environments. At the same time, I’m sure some patients would feel a bit more comfortable about complex procedures if they are actually able to understand what is normally so abstract. I am curious to see the results if/when VR finds its way into addiction treatment, as the psychological and physical effects of addiction are so strong. Awesome post overall!

  2. Hey Michael, I love that you blogged about this topic. I firmly believe that VR can be used to revolutionize the way many things are done in this world, including revolutionizing social media check out my own blogpost :) . Undoubtably, its application in healthcare we be very important. I think VR will be able assist in any sort of training for many types of jobs such as surgeons like the example you give. I haven’t considered the use of VR for addiction treatment; definitely a big deal of it is proven effective. Recently, I’ve been wondering if the technology could also be used to train astronauts and pilots.

  3. Hey Michael, first off great post about this topic.I really enjoyed reading about these different avenues because I’ve studied VR technology in this space before for another class at BC. I thought that the addiction sphere was a cool one to explore because I’ve recently heard that often rehab is effective in the isolated space of rehab but harder to apply once one returns home. Rehab space sometimes becomes disassociated with the outside world and the habits that one creates there sometimes do not translate smoothly once someone is functioning in their normal environment again. Therefore I think it”s a great idea to VR to both test newly established habits in a virtual environment and also to provide therapy at the moment it is needed. I wonder about the effectiveness of immersing oneself in a virtual environment when one feels tempted. Could strapping a video on one’s head of your counselor or doctor from rehab help in the time of relapse?
    Or are patients less inclined to pick up the video headset because it isn’t any more helpful than logging onto a computer to watch a video?

    I wanted to ask further about one of the points you made in the article as well. I’m a little bit curious how you think that the VR space could better explain how to handle difficult conversations associated with the aging process that a video could not. I find that using VR is a great immersive experience, but an instructional video might be just as effective as an instructional VR video. Merely putting a headset on to be in the situation rather than watching one might be more effective but I’m curious to hear your thoughts. I completely agree on the textbooks and manuals point, but am curious of the incremental advantages created over normal 2D video.

    1. Hey, Tucker. Thanks for the feedback! Since VR is a much more interactive medium, there could be multiple scenarios built into the software that cause the situation to change appropriately depending on how you, as a trainee, behave towards the patient. Although an instructional video may be as equally effective at delivering a message, that medium is more of a one-way street than a two-way interaction. With the proliferation of AI, the software reactions as a result of your decisions could be even more accurate to what an actual patient would do in that situation.

      Regarding addiction, I think the interactivity of VR is, again, the main draw of this medium over a video or any other form of prerecorded message. As I understand it, addictions tend to resurface in the face of certain triggers. By having a VR platform act as an alternative outlet for those addictive urges once they arise, I believe it’s possible to halt the relapse process at the initial urges stage.

  4. Nice post. I agree with the core premise that VR holds quite alot of promise for healthcare. The biggest challenge is that the medical industry is generally so resistant to technology that I fear any meaningful adoption will lag considerably.

    1. Yes, I completely agree about the stagnation of change that is predominant in the medical industry. I would like to draw hope from the fact that robotically-assisted surgery tools such as those implemented by the da Vinci Surgical System are a harbinger of the future change to come in the industry. Although I don’t expect any new technology to immediately make waves in such a centuries-old profession, it, like many other industries that still exist today, cannot be impervious to technological change.

  5. This was a great read! It is important to understand the far-reaching opportunities new technologies create in addition to their initial usage. While most people do still think of VR as a tool for video games, it is awesome to see that the medicine industry is exploring its potential benefits to doctors and patients. While all five uses listed are forward-thinking, I think the one that could have the biggest immediate impact is “simplifying advanced concepts”. VR could allow doctors to walk patients and their families through procedures step by step prior to surgeries. I know many people who are nervous when dealing with medical issues because they don’t really understand it themselves. This application of VR technology could definitely help patients feel more knowledgeable about their own health issues.

    Like Tucker, I have my doubts about the success of using VR in addiction therapy. But it is refreshing to see that there are people out there looking at all possible uses and not eliminating any opportunities. Sometimes the craziest ideas are the ones that end up having the biggest impact.

  6. Good points about VR. In NYC it was fairly often that a med student was there to observe the doctor. I definitely am in favor of VR for doctors training to be a heart surgeon. Remind me to sue the hospital if I die at the hands of a med student.

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