NVIDIAVoice: Creating New Realities for Patient Outcomes: Virtual Reality in Healthcare Part I

When most people think of Virtual Reality (VR), the image that comes to mind is interactive gaming experiences and awe-inspiring, immersive entertainment. And, while the media and entertainment industry is a critical driver of advancing extended reality (xR) technologies (which encompasses virtual, augmented and mixed reality), a deeper examination makes it clear these technologies are poised to have a profound impact across an array of industries.  One such industry is healthcare, where healthcare professionals are finding a growing set of applications where advanced technologies enhance their ability to improve patient outcomes. These xR technologies are finding a home within the healthcare industry particularly because they can be used as a non-invasive, engaging means for patient treatment. Whether used for mental health therapy, for comforting patients, or as a tool for rehabilitation and exercise, VR technologies are providing an effective, elegant solution for a host of individuals needing innovative medical care.

NVIDIA

An exciting area VR is impacting is the field of mental health therapy.  With the continued rise in the number of individuals who will experience mental health disorders over their lifetime, the need for risk-free and scalable treatments as alternatives to traditional remedies and pharmaceuticals is becoming increasingly important. In the media, entertainment and gaming industries, VR is used to produce emotional, psychological and physiological responses; exactly the responses needed in using exposure therapy as a treatment for a variety of mental health disorders. Commonly used to address phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), exposure therapy is characterized by the controlled introduction of individuals to the experiences that trigger their psychosomatic responses. Appropriately regulated exposure triggers a manageable response without challenging the patient enough to cause adverse effects; the patient can then learn to become more accustomed to the sensations and practice cognitive-behavioral techniques that will help them manage deleterious responses.  VR is especially useful in this situation, as finding the appropriate level of exposure can be challenging in the real world (especially when a patient’s triggers are rare). The use of virtual worlds allows construction of the experiences in a manner similar to levels in a game enabling patients to work through stressful situations comfortably in a controlled environment.

Patient comfort is an increasingly important part of the health care process. There are millions of patients who deal with chronic and acute pain on a daily basis. Pain management is extremely challenging to deal with in both inpatient and outpatient situations. Compounding the challenges of managing pain is the opioid epidemic that is sweeping through the United States. Fortunately, extended reality technologies are being put to the test and showing some promising results in helping patients manage pain.  Burn victims for instance, who need to go through the painful process of regular bandage changings, often report that they are in significantly less pain when they are able to refocus on interactive and engaging virtual worlds. Virtual reality is also effective in treating the particularly interesting phenomenon known as phantom limb pain, where a patient’s brain experiences pain or discomfort in a limb that has been amputated.  Current methods for treating phantom limb pain rely on tricking the brain into imagining that the limb still exists, such as using a mirror box to create the illusion of a symmetrical body. VR is so promising for this complication because interactive virtual experiences that incorporate the latest in haptics technology only help to solidify the illusion and help to reduce patient discomfort.

Additionally, xR technologies are becoming more prevalent as a tool for improving patient comfort by reducing anxiety levels.  For example, the CHARIOT Program at the Lucile Packard Children’s hospital Stanford, part of Stanford’s Children’s Health Network, is finding that VR and AR technologies are an entertaining way to explain procedures. Understanding their upcoming procedures helps children stay calm before their operations and can even serve as a distraction during the procedure.  In another example, Surgical Theater, LLC, builds 3D models based on a patient’s 2D MRI scans. Patients can use these models for extended reality exploration with a full 360 degree experience, enabling them to gain a better understanding of, and comfort with, their specific procedure.

VR is also starting to make a real impact in exercise and rehabilitation. One of the main issues in the fitness industry is that of providing people with fitness programs that they love and that keep them work out at a consistent pace. There are a growing number of companies like VirZoom, Black Box VR and others that believe that immersive VR gaming experiences that are paired with stationary bikes and resistance exercises can provide individuals with the fun they need to build healthy exercise habits that stick. Try pedaling a pegasus for a workout! As important as exercise is, VR is also showing a life-changing impact as an assistive technology for individuals who have physical disabilities; enabling people to learn new skills, such as navigating a wheelchair in a new environment, or modified daily activities to establish more independence. For those patients that have had a traumatic accident or stroke and lose some of their motor function, VR has been effectively used to improve motor skills and muscle recovery. The Walk Again Project, led by researchers at Duke University, has found success in being able to stimulate once dormant nerves by incorporating brain-machine interfacing technology, VR and a robotic exoskeleton. This approach has helped restore some motor control for their once fully paraplegic patients. Take a look at the video to see the amazing story.

These powerful examples of VR bringing real improvements to the people who need it most only scratch the surface of the potential that these technologies bring. In a follow up article I’ll address how healthcare practitioners can use VR for everything from learning about and training for complex medical scenarios, to performing real operations in virtual and augmented reality for robotic surgery.

In the meantime, for more interesting stories and resources check out the following links: